Monday, August 06, 2012

The Shadow of the Wind

To say that Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was an international success is an understatement.  The novel has been published in at least 20 countries and was a number one bestseller in Spain, the author’s home country.  Part gothic novel, part romance novel, it is an ambitious story of almost 500 pages that blends several genres in a way guaranteed (in theory) to appeal to a variety of readers.  Ruiz Zafón seems to be appealing to readers that enjoy mysteries, coming-of-age novels, fantasy, historical fiction, intensely atmospheric settings, books about books, or even (perhaps, especially) television soap operas.  A complete willingness to toss aside one’s sense of disbelief is mandatory with this one.  All of that is well and good, but it is also a bit risky because it only works if readers do not also dislike some of the elements in the blend. 

The book’s first person narrator, Daniel Sempere, is ten years old when the story begins in 1950s Barcelona.  When young Daniel panics that he is forgetting his deceased mother’s face, his bookstore-owning father decides to distract him by introducing Daniel to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” an underground storage facility where single copies of such books are preserved.  Daniel is encouraged to remove one book from the vast library, a book for which he will be forever responsible from that moment onward.  He chooses a novel by Julián Carex called The Shadow of the Wind. 

Daniel takes his role seriously and decides to find copies of the other books Carex wrote before his violent death on the streets of Barcelona in 1936.  He is horrified to learn, however, that the books are impossible to locate because a horribly disfigured man supposedly has been buying them for years with the sole purpose of destroying them.  Determined to protect the Carex book in his possession, Daniel becomes obsessed with learning everything he can about Julián Carex.  When this mysterious book-burner learns that Daniel owns a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel’s life – along with that of his father and closest friends – is placed in jeopardy unless he agrees to sell his book to the fiend. 

Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Ruiz Zafón tells his tale via two timelines, one involving the personal history of Julián Carex and one describing Daniel’s present day effort to discover the truth about Carex’s death.  As the similarities between the two timelines become more and more evident, the mystery surrounding Daniel’s nemesis goes in and out of focus several times before the man’s identity and motive for destroying the Carex books are finally revealed.  It is a long and winding path – one that involves an assemblage of characters and villains in both timelines.

My problem with The Shadow of the Wind is a “technical” one.  I am always willing to suspend my sense of disbelief when I enjoy a story, allowing an author plenty of room to use coincidence and cliché to move a plot forward, as is certainly the case here.  What made reading The Shadow of the Wind a chore for me was the author’s insistence on slowing the pace to a near halt several times by inserting secondhand accounts of action that had taken place “off stage.”  When I realized the memories being recounted by the book’s characters contained a level of detail - and facts - that the immediate speaker had no way of knowing (either at the time of the actual events or in the present), I began to dread losing my reading momentum to them.  Not only does this literary device not work, it is distracting and lessens the impact of the rest of the book - and it is a lazy way to tell a story. 

That said, the book does contain one of my favorite passages of all time regarding books and readers:

            Every book, every volume you see here has a soul.  The soul of the person who wrote it and those who read it and lived and dreamed with it.  Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down it pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

That thought makes me happy.


  1. I enjoyed your review immensely! It is well written with examples that support your ideas. Well done! (This novel caught my eye recently and I'd love to give it a read.)

  2. I loved that passage as well! There is another quote I enjoyed so much I wrote it down in my book of quotes I've kept for over 20 years, I will go find we go...

    "Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that's it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day".

    Like your passage, I love the sense of passion and interaction Ruiz Zafon imparts to the act of reading.

    I did have similar thoughts about the convolutions of this story, but I love the way the guy writes, and the book is one of the ones that "stay" with me.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Shirley. I do think you will enjoy The Shadow of the Wind, especially if all those little recaps of past history don't irritate you like they did me. It's actually a great story.

  4. Wow, Susan. That's the other quote I copied down, too. I almost used both quotes in my review but it was already getting too long, so I decided on just the one. You can tell that Zafon loves books the way that avid readers love them. I like that about him.