The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The third of Zafon's teen adventures, and a third classically-minded drama of hidden truths and mysterious arcana. Recommended, if not perfect.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Orion Childrens
ISBN: 9781444001655

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Good and bad luck combined have forced Irene and her family – mother Simone and insular younger brother Dorian – to live in the Normandy village of Blue Bay. It's a way to relieve the poverty her deceased father left them in, as Simone is now housekeeper to Lazarus Jann, a mysterious elderly businessman who lives in a mansion peopled by countless automata, and the isolated shell of what used to be his healthy wife. Irene herself has met the maid's brother, which the village network has immediately inflated into a long-term romance. Dorian is happy enough to be errand-boy for Jann's peculiar correspondence. So far, so interesting. But is there a dark secret to be had with the clockwork toys keeping Jann company? Is the tale of a ghost on the lighthouse islet true? And what else could be implied in the book's very title? In such a small village, for anyone to hold a secret it has to be very big, and very powerful…

Zafon is throwing a lot of elements into the mix for our delectation, and would appear to be using too many diverse strands to hope for a coherent story. But the general consensus has to be that on the whole he balances them well. This teenage ghost adventure story certainly has the creepy sections, as well as a lot of decent, emotional characterisation and moments of high drama. All are easily described in his hands, and you can see the influences he mentions in his foreword on almost every page.

There is a slight problem at the beginning as one gets one's head round a Spaniard writing of a French environment headed by an edifice called Cravenmoore, which sounds to me like the name of an English dairy. But I don't think anything else will get lost in translation; the clear writing covers the attraction of Irene and the young sailor Ismael, and all the nightmares the story can fit in, very eloquently. So much so that some scenes might be a bit too creepy and frightening for those attracted by the large font size and more. But Zafon is an author who does not patronise his young audiences, and in this and his other teen reads has provided very much a classical, intelligent and gripping genre piece.

There really are few writers that I find on the general fiction shelves that can lay claim to such an oeuvre, of dark, intriguing dramas peppered by real people with real characters, histories and emotions. The nearest equivalent would for me be Susan Hill, whose ghost stories I can see teens reading comfortably. And they'll do the same here, even if the conclusion shows the story to have been more insular and personal than perhaps my summary led you to believe, and bordering on the melodramatic. The colourful drama here is very fresh on the page and on the whole very vivid for the reader, and this is a further recommended title by this author.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I still think Zafon's best in this loose series has been The Prince of Mist.

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