This is an entertaining book, a mystery of sorts that is part love story and part thriller, but most of all an opus to the act of reading. The story takes place in Barcelona following the civil war of the 1930’s and centers around Daniel Sempere, the son of an antique bookseller. Young Daniel’s life is changed through a book he has discovered amidst the shelves of the cemetery of forgotten books:
“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later – no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn to forget – we will return.” (8)
That book that left such an impression on young Daniel is none other than “The Shadow of the Wind,” a book by a little known Spanish author named Julian Carax. Carax wrote several books while living in Paris during the Spanish civil war of the 1930’s, but despite his proclivity he was little read and was published only through the sympathetic financing of an old friend. Daniel’s discovery of the book in the mid 40’s opens up a world of intrigue that reveals more than what is hidden within the novel’s pages. After revealing the book to a collector interested in purchasing it, Daniel soon learns that Carax novel’s are a rarity because a mysterious man with a burned face has been burning up copies of all of Carax’s novels. There is a web of romance and deceit behind this burnt man’s intentions and in the coming years when Daniel grows up to fall in love with his best friend’s sister he learns that his romantic path is a warped mirror of the disastrous path once lived and suffered by the troubled Julian Carax.
Without giving away the plot I’ll admit that I had figured out where this novel was going far too early and therefore despite a strong initial hook I quickly lost interest because the plot direction was formulaic and therefore predictable. There is a long period of detective work that Daniel embarks on that dragged on for over 250 pages with little action. During this overextended interlude Daniel discovers many false leads, but a careful reader can see how the narrative hints the correct fittings of the misplaced puzzle pieces. I will say that the last 150 pages or so picked up with a lot of action told through a swift change in narrative voice that provided the historical backdrop of the conflict that Daniel discovers. The ending is a story of redemption, and yet what could have been a dark and tragic book turns into a happy tale in which all the pieces fall into place a little too nicely to fully satisfy.
The novel is primarily written in the first person voice of Daniel with some unexplained interludes written in italics that are sometimes a third person narrative and sometimes the voice of a character writing a letter to another character or a character telling a story to Daniel. These interludes were annoying to me – I’m not sure if this was due to a poor translation, but they always seemed abrupt and unnecessary to the progression of the plot from Daniel’s perspective. As I noted above, towards the end of the novel there is a long section that is from another narrative voice in the form of a letter/manuscript written by a woman who knew the young Julian Carax. This section is written well and takes the form of Daniel reading the manuscript, however once again there is a long third person italicized interlude that really doesn’t belong within the text of a manuscript written by a character within Zafon’s novel using one of Zafon’s narrative devices. Throughout the book there is a lot of lovely language giving homage to reading and literature, such as the one below, but in my reading I wished that Zafon gave more credit to his readers by tightening up the structure of the book.
“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming scarce by the day.” (484)
Despite this reader’s criticism, this was a fun book. It is light summer reading fare. I didn’t learn anything profound nor was I moved by the narrative. Despite it taking place during civil war and post war Spain, I learned very little about Spain or Barcelona. It is a simple book meant to be enjoyed for the sake of reading.