Review of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
I just finished reading Elizabeth Kostova's supernatural thriller, and I'm like, whoa . Okay, that is possibly the most un-erudite thing you've ever read in a book review, but it's my immediate and visceral reaction. I will try to be more precise forthwith:
The Historian is the tale of our narrator, who when she is sixteen years old finds a curious book and a packet of letters in her father's study. When she questions him about it, he is extremely reluctant to discuss it, but while accompanying him on his travels around Europe as a cold-war-era diplomat, she slowly begins to draw a tale from him that seems unbelievable at first, yet is supported by the letters, written by his former doctoral advisor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who disappeared under mysterious and terrifying circumstances immediately after passing the letters to his advisee, the narrator's father.
As she gets more pieces of the puzzle over the course of a couple of years, our intrepid narrator begins to do research of her own into the supernatural historical mystery that has caused her father the loss of his cherished friend, Rossi, and possibly the loss as well of her mother, who perished, also under mysterious circumstances that her father will not discuss, when she was an infant. She continues to chase clues until her father also disappears abruptly, leaving her in a race against time to find him and to find out what happened to her mother before all is lost to a predator who seems to be stalking them as readily as they stalk him.
This book succeeds in the unlikely task of making historical research, cold war politics and European history fascinating by interweaving it with a scary, thrilling chase that is paced so well, the reader is lead almost breathlessly through the entire six hundred-plus pages to the amazing denouement and skin-crawling epilogue. We follow three successive generations of historians (Professor Rossi, the narrator's parents, and the narrator herself) as they each contribute piece after piece of the mysterious puzzle, following a trail that leads from Amsterdam and France to Romania and Istanbul and through Soviet-controlled Hungary and Bulgaria. In every new location, we learn more about the history of the area, from medieval times through the '30s, '50s and '70s of the 20th century. Everything from the Ottoman Empire to the library systems of various universities and monasteries is explored in the most fascinating way.
One of the minor mysteries of the book is the question of to whom the title refers. Is the Historian Rossi, a highly celebrated and much-published professor in the History department at Oxford and the originator of the supernatural investigation, or is it Paul, the narrator's father, who was a doctoral student in that same department before ending up as a diplomat after the loss of his wife cut short his own search? Is the Historian the narrator, who joins the search, and is, after all, the main character? Or could it be one of the many professors, archivists and librarians who help our investigators along the way, sometimes to their own fatal outcomes? Near the end of the book, the identity of the Historian is revealed, and I guarantee it will make you shiver to your very bones. I highly recommend Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian , an excellent, scary read that will take you along for the white-knuckle ride!
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