I loved this book so much that I re-instated this blog because I needed a place to talk about it. That’s a lot of love, so, while it’s called a “review” for tagging purposes, it’s not really what I’d call critical. It’s more of an enthusiastic, oh-my-god-THIS-BOOK!!! recommendation. Fair warning.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is not a new book. It came out in 2001 and became an international best-seller, which is probably why, whenever I ecstatically mentioned it, someone said something like, oh, yeah – I read that 15 years ago and I loved it! So, yes. I’m a bit late to the party, but whatever. I got there, thanks entirely to the recommendation of someone whose opinion I value in pretty much all things.
This was one of those alchemical, magical reading experiences that reminds me of why I love books as much as I do. In fact, it’s the first time in ages that I’ve gotten the “book tingle” (if you’ve never felt the “book tingle”, I’m sorry. It’s awesome. Read until you feel it and you’ll see what I mean). Now that I’ve exhaustively established that I do, in fact, love this book, I’ll try get past “OMG SO GOOD” to why it worked for me, and there was a lot that worked for me.
Zafon pulls a million disparate elements together to make a layered, suspenseful, compelling whole. The plot is as tight as it is labyrinthian; the prose is gorgeous, even in translation; the setting – Barcelona during Franco’s regime – is so effortlessly realized that I found myself transported (cliched but true); the tone of elegant decay and creeping danger really got under my skin; and through it all, there is something that I can only call a “Spanish-ness” that I found incredibly familiar and comforting. I felt as if I were lying on the floor, reading it at my grandparents’ house. I could practically smell the garlic simmering on the stove.
In short, there are about ten different things I could pull out of the book and point to as reasons to read it, but that would be boring. Instead, I’ll focus on the thing that compelled me most – the characters and how effectively Zafon drew me into their lives.
Whether rendered through first person narration or third party accounts, every character feels whole unto him(or her)self. Zafon treats all of them with such warmth of detail that I felt as if I were people watching in a cafe – they each had histories and lives, I just wasn’t privvy to all of them.
It’s rare to find a book that is not only fast-paced and plot-driven, but emotionally affecting.While the novel itself could best be described as a literary or historical thriller, Zafon spends as much energy on characterization as he does on pacing and plot. I connected with even the most tertiary characters – like a nurse, unjustly warehoused in an old-age asylum and a gently deviant clockmaker – because Zafon made me care without every feeling manipulated.
This worked especially well with the book’s narrator / protagonist, a bookseller’s son named Daniel. The death of his mother endears you to him immediately, so that, when his father takes him to the gorgeously conceived Cemetary of Forgotten Books [Side Note: I want to live there] you want something special to happen. And it does.
The young Daniel chooses one boo – The Shadow of the Wind by a brilliant but forgotten author named Julian Carax. Daniel’s quest to protect Carax’s legacy drives him deep into the past with a doggedness that eludes him in other areas of his life. There is an unspoken, latitudinal connection between Carax and Daniel that works quietly on how the reader engages the book. Their unfolding connection gives the novel much of its gothic pull. And don’t be mistaken – The Shadow of the Wind gets dark. Bad things happen to good people, and it’s a credit to Zafon that the tragic is balanced by goodness and empathy without feeling contrived.
Finally, The Shadow of the Wind (Zafon’s – not Carax’s) is full of books – the love of books, the writing of books, the preservation, destruction, selling and buying of books. This is a book about people who love books, from the bookstore that Daniel’s father owns to the (aforementioned paradise on earth) Cemetary of Forgotten Books.
The Shadow of the Wind works on nearly every level and Carlos Ruiz Zafon knocked me out with it. So, if you haven’t read it, read it. Really. Do. And if you already have feel free to let me know what you think…especially if you disagree with me. I’m so blinded by enthusiasm that I’d be curious to hear what other people think
I purposely left out a summary and full list of characters. If you’d like either, click here.
And if you want to buy Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of Wind or any of his other titles, (including others set in the same milieu), click here.