It is 1945 and Barcelona is enduring the long aftermath of civil war when Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father decides Daniel is old enough to visit the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again.
Daniel’s father encourages him to choose a book from the spiralling labyrinth of shelves, so Daniel selects at random The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He loves the novel so much that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. But to his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last of Carax’s books in existence.
Before Daniel knows it, his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, madness, deceit and doomed love. Despite the danger Daniel finds himself in, he is determined to uncover the mystery behind who is destroying Carax’s books once and for all.
This is not a book I would have selected for myself. It was a birthday present from a close relative who enjoyed it so much she wanted to share it with me – and I’m glad she did. I’m also glad that I waited until the holidays to read it, because I’m not sure I would’ve followed the book’s complex, multi-layered plot very well if I’d read it in spits and spurts. As it happened, I read the entire 500+ pages in 72 hours while on a camping trip, burning through the pages of lyrical prose, as desperate as Daniel to unravel the mysteries of The Shadow of the Wind.
Zafon paints a rich portrait of Barcelona after the civil war, bringing to life a city and an era that I previously knew nothing about. I fell in love with many of the book’s characters, particularly the eternally optimistic, slightly naive protagonist Daniel; the enigmatic subject of Daniel’s fascination, Julian Carax; and Daniel’s slightly crazy, lewd-but-loveable older friend Fermin.
The plot contains two overarching stories – Daniel’s and Julian’s – which mirror each other and become increasingly intertwined as the book progresses. The cast of characters is quite huge, but each character plays an important part in the story. For me, The Shadow of the Wind is very much about loneliness, regret and the darker side of human nature, but is also laced with romance, kindness and love.
It is also a book for book lovers. It captures the powerful relationship between a book and its reader beautifully, with passages such as:
‘Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was submerged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.’
Oh, that wonderful feeling of having finished a good book. Show me a book lover who can’t relate to that passage!
But although I adored this book, I also found it immensely frustrating. I had a love/hate relationship with its descriptive prose, because for every heartbreakingly beautiful passage, there were countless others that (in my opinion) could have benefited from a good prune.
My main issue with this book, though, relates to the narrative. Although the story is predominantly told in first person from Daniel’s perspective, there are large chunks that involve others recounting their memory of past events to Daniel. These memories add depth and further the plot, however they contain insights that are impossible for the person recounting the memory to have. For example, if I was telling you a story about a man I met years ago and hadn’t been in contact with since, it would seem odd if I told you exactly what he was doing and precisely what he was thinking months after our last meeting. The Shadow of the Wind was riddled with point-of-view errors of this nature, and they marred an otherwise amazing reading experience for me. Zafon is obviously a masterful story teller, so I don’t understand why he couldn’t have applied his skills to provide us with these insights through other means.
Despite the issues I’ve highlighted, The Shadow of the Wind is definitely a powerful, worthwhile read. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys multi-layered gothic fiction or stories that explore the darker side of human nature.
What’s your opinion?
Have you read The Shadow of the Wind? If so, what did you think? If not, do you plan to?
My 1-5 scale
1: Terrible. I couldn’t finish it.
3: Good but not great.
3.5: A solid, enjoyable read but still some elements not working for me.
4: Really enjoyable with very few flaws OR flawed, but I loved it anyway.
4.5: Unputdownable. Close to perfect. I’ll rave about it to anyone who listens.
5: Perfection (i.e. pretty much unattainable).