Wednesday 14 September 2022

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated by Lucia Graves)

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Daniel Sempere is ten years old when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and instructs him to choose one book which will become his responsibility to keep safe. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, an author whose novels have all but disappeared. In this first beguiling chapter, which reads something like a love letter to literature, neither Daniel nor the reader are aware of how much his book choice will change his life. 

Having devoured the novel, Daniel goes in search of more of Carax’s work, only to be met with disappointment. He is offered large sums of money to part with the book but he refuses. Soon, he encounters a mysterious figure named after a character from the book, hellbent on finding all copies of Carax’s work and destroying them. Daniel finds himself engulfed in a world of mystery, heartache, and revenge, as he seeks to uncover the truth about Carax.

Alongside the mystery and intrigue is a coming-of-age tale of love. Daniel falls for his best friend’s sister, much to the anger of her family. His story mirrors Julián’s own troubled love story in unsettling ways, and the reader is torn up hoping for a less tragic outcome. As Daniel gradually discovers the truth of Julián’s life, he realises that he must learn lessons from the past and try to avoid the kind of fallout experienced by the previous generation. His family friend, Fermín, aids him in his search for the truth, but his association with him further leads Daniel into danger. Inspector Fumero is looking for him and is willing to punish anyone with an association, and, as it turns out, also has a vendetta against Julián, putting Daniel in double danger.

This is a curious book that stirs up a lot of emotion. The parallel trajectory of Julián and Daniel’s lives seems a little overdone, and it is Julián’s tale that you really long to know the conclusion to, but overall it is gripping. There’s an interesting host of characters, all seemingly with secret pasts, and Daniel is never quite sure who to believe. There is much honour to be found in the actions of a number of characters, and much shame in others. Father figures, especially those with daughters, do not come off well as a whole, treating their families with violence and causing huge amounts of grief. Daniel’s father is the exception to his, quietly supporting his son while worrying as he becomes increasingly distracted and unreliable. There are some truly harrowing tales within the unravelling of Julián’s sad story, and most often it is young women who are the victims.

There are notes of other great tales mixed in - Fumero is a kind of Javert, obsessed with an individual to an unhealthy degree. Lain Coubert, the mysterious arsonist, has parallels to the Phantom of the Opera - a disfigured face, living in the shadows, and carrying out abhorrent deeds while somehow maintaining a certain level of sympathy from the reader, at least as the novel progresses. 

Set between 1945 and 1955 (in Daniel’s timeline), there are shadows of the real-life upheaval and atrocities that were carried out in Barcelona, adding motive and a sense of history and context to the novel. Zafón does not shy away from the darker side of life, and his characters reflect this, all fallible and making unwise decisions at times. He nonetheless infuses the novel with a sense of humour which helps prevent it becoming too heavy.

Overall, a wonderful read that fits in an awful lot of life. There are mysteries and revelations aplenty, and characters that you become quite attached to. A great pick for anyone looking for a well-written page turner and a spot of armchair travel. 

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