Entangled With a Writer’s Mystery
(A Book Review of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind)
The novel, set in post-Spanish civil war Barcelona, concerns a young boy, Daniel Sempere. Just after the war, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone initiated to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it, and must protect it for life. Daniel selects a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax.
The novel is rare, the author obscure, and rumors tell of a horribly disfigured man who has been burning every copy he can find of Carax’s novels. The man calls himself Lain Coubert — the name of the devil in one of Carax’s novels. As he grows up, Daniel’s fascination with the mysterious Carax links him to a blind girl with a “porcelain gaze,” Clara Barcelo; another fan, a leftist jack-of-all-trade, Fermin Romero de Torres; his best friend’s sister, the delectable Beatriz Aguilar; and as he begins investigating the life and death of Carax, a cast of characters with secrets to hide. In doing so Daniel becomes entangled in an age old conflict that began with the author himself. Many parallels are found to exist between the author’s life and Daniel’s and he takes it upon himself to make sure history does not repeat itself.
Daniel is believably an awkward teenager — compassionate, but naïve and romantically inept. Unfortunately as Daniel grows, his character does not, but luckily, Fermin, a homeless man whom Daniel’s father hires off the street to work in his bookshop, has enough charisma for the both of them. An ex-secret agent and unattractive lady’s man, who works his way through pinching bottoms and solving mysteries. His depth of character, wit coupled with a tortured past as a prisoner of war, makes him one of the main redeeming factors in the story.
Fans of the classics will find the tale utterly compelling with its magical interweaving of fate, time and romance, and Zafón’s knack for mapping out every inch of scene through a liquid flow of words. But despite the completely original story line, more contemporary readers might be turned off by its verbose nature and implausibility. Prostitutes are good-hearted people, homeless men are brilliant heroes, the hatter is mad…well as a hatter and Barcelona seems conveniently no more than two blocks wide.
There’s no denying, however, that Zafón has a wonderful gift for pushing and pulling his reader’s attention. Cliffhanger chapter endings are sprinkled throughout the book. Fittingly for such a celebration of the imagination was the translation done by Lucia Graves who somehow retained the language and the intricate mood. Everything about The Shadow of the Wind is so fluid. The language falls freely, while the plot twists breeze us through and the mysteries are solved with elegance. Yet despite all these strengths, I felt that there are still loose ends in the book that has not been resolved which I will rather not speak of for it might spoil you the journey as you read through the book, enraptured by Spain’s air of mystery.
The Shadow of the Wind is a distinctive moody read. Charming and thoroughly readable, yet ultimately lacks the magic its early chapter promises.
Published by Penguin (Non-Classics)
(Trade Paperback, February 2005 Edition)
Read in: April 2009