This is one that’s been on my To Read list for a long time. The Shadow of the Wind (Penguin Books, 2001) takes place in Barcelona, following the Second World War. Daniel is ten years old, living with his father, the owner of a bookshop. As the story opens, Daniel is taken for the first time to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Zafon certainly knows how to grab a book lover’s attention. This is a mysterious place where books are preserved from destruction. Daniel is allowed to choose one volume as his own to protect and he takes home a book by a man called Julian Carax. The book is called The Shadow of the Wind.
From there we follow Daniel through the next ten or so years of his life. His adolescence, his first love, and his growing desire to find out who Julian Carax was and why someone has been systematically destroying all of Carax’s works. This question draws him deep into a family mystery, the dark places of a city, and even some political turmoil. (Zafon never lets his reader’s mind stray far from what life in Spain must have been like in the 1950s.)
For a normal-sized novel, there’s a lot packed in here. Zafon is great at fleshing out his characters – even the ones who eventually seem to fade into the background. From a beautiful blind girl to the beggar on the street with a mysterious past, each character is evocatively described and given life. Lurking behind all these is the figure of Julian Carax and a burned man who seems to want to stop Daniel from discovering the truth.
As Daniel reaches deeper into Carax’s past, the layers thicken. The story is undoubtedly interesting, with a certain gothic-style luridness. It becomes increasingly clear just how unlikely a happy ending will be for Julian, and maybe even Daniel. It’s certainly not a hard novel to read and the winding plot will keep you rushing towards the conclusion.
That said, the novel often delves into the overwrought or overly dramatic. No, it’s not realistic and it’s certainly not trying to be but it spreads out in so many directions that, by the end, a few of them felt unnecessary. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, for example, while a great idea and a terrific initial hook, actually didn’t add that much to the story. Daniel could have just as easily gotten a copy of Carax’s book at the shop where he worked. As well, there’s a relationship extensively described at the beginning of the novel that is essentially forgotten halfway through. I kept waiting for that connection to pay off in the conclusion but it was never there.
This is a fun, escapist novel. It’s not great literature and it’s not written as such. It’s literary aspect will please those who love spending time in old book stores and who wonder about the secret lives of writers.
*Because reading Spanish is not one of my many talents, I read the English translation of this book, as translated by Lucia Graves.