Monday, August 21, 2006

Book review: The Shadow of the Wind

Daniel Sempere was ten years old in 1945, when his father, a bookseller, took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in their home city of Barcelona, Spain. A place known only to a select few, the tradition was that on his first visit, the visitor would find a book that would be "his." He would, from then on, have to ensure the book never disappeared, for that was the mission of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It was place to rescue unwanted books, those discarded from libraries and liquidated from book stores.

Daniel's father takes him to the Cemetery at 5 a.m. "Now?" Daniel asks. "Some things can only be seen in shadows," his father replies. The Cemetery itself is described as "a basilica of shadows." Daniel entered the cavernous building with awe and finds himself drawn to a book, as if by fate. The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax.

Daniel devours The Shadow of the Wind in one night, he's so taken by the story. But we see that from the very start this book will mean more to him than words on a page when he almost immediately finds a scene from the book repeated in his own life. He steps out of the balcony in the small hours of the night and sees a man, gazing in his direction, with one hand in his jacket. In The Shadow of the Wind, it is the devil who strikes this very pose when the protagonist goes out on his balcony at night.

It turns out that Shadow is very rare. Julian Carax's books never sold much in the first place, but some mysterious man had been buying them up and burning them, it was rumored. The day of his 16th birthday, Daniel meets the devil he saw from his balcony. The man has a burned face, and he intimates he wants to buy The Shadow of the Wind from Daniel and burn it. This frightens Daniel, and he goes back to the Cemetery to hide the book once again.

The rest of the book follows Daniel as he unravels the story of Julian Carax and unwittingly begins to follow the same path as Carax himself. Woven in are the story of the effects of war, the changing fortunes of the rich, the nature of love and courage, and, most of all, fate. The shadows of the dead fall long upon the living, shaping their outlooks, moving them along the path of time.

This novel is rich, in both language and plot. It was translated from the original Spanish in a masterful fashion by Lucia Graves. The blurb on the front cover of the paperback edition quotes Stephen King saying, "One gorgeous read," and he's spot on. The story harkens back to 19th century literature, with its complicated plot twists and turns, the role of fate and social class. The language follows suit, being more often lyrical than straightforward, and at times almost flowery.

The main characters are wonderful, and some are truly characters, like Daniel’s friend and colleague Fermín. He is described a small, wiry man with a big nose and big ears, whose manner of speech outstrips his size. Opinionated on all things, especially the political, he gives Daniel advice in love, and moves the story forward where Daniel, left to his own devices, might have been more cautious.

Daniel himself, who is our narrator, is a sympathetic character. He is hard on himself yet self-aware. He thinks himself a coward but others see him as brave, and he keeps us guessing right up to the end as to which he really is.

Daniel's life is taken over by the life of Julian Carax, because that story had not ended by the time Daniel entered it. While being a story of love and fate, The Shadow of the Wind is essentially a mystery, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón reveals details slowly to Daniel, so the reader cannot know exactly where he is headed.

Zafón does a fine job in turning a complicated, old-fashioned story into a page turner, and Graves did it justice in her translation. The Shadow of the Wind is both a gorgeous read and a satisfying one, enjoyable from start to finish.

Cross posted to Blogcritics.

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