The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A coming-of-age novel, but also a closely plotted work of detection and an historical thriller. There are evocative word-pictures of Barcelona after the end of the Second World War and, despite the fact that this is a translation, an excellent, flowing read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: October 2005
Publisher: Phoenix
ISBN: 0753820250

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

Hidden away in the back streets of Barcelona is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and when ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is introduced to it by his father he's allowed to choose one book from the millions of dusty volumes stored there. His choice is "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julián Carax and when he reads it he's completely enchanted. It's 1945 and the world is emerging from war and Spain has the added burden of the memories of the Civil War. As the years pass Daniel realises that a lot of people are strangely, dangerously interested in his book. What begins as curiosity about Carax, his life and his other books becomes an obsession to discover the truth behind the disappearance of Carax and the girl he loved.

I delayed reading this book for quite a long time. It's a translation from the original Spanish and so often translations fail to live up to the promise. I was put off, too by the quote from the Daily Telegraph on the front "... an instant classic". I'm increasingly finding that book reviews in national newspapers are rarely critical and seem designed only to sell books, so when I finally started to read the book, I expected little.

At the beginning of the story we meet Daniel as a shy, uncertain boy, frightened that he can no longer picture his dead mother. Over a period of ten years we watch him mature into a confident, responsible man. I've read many "coming-of-age" books where the accent has been on the sexual aspect of maturing. There is an element of that here but there's far more emphasis on emotions and obligations. We see Daniel's first, unrequited love for the older, blind daughter of a rich bookseller in Barcelona and the brutal shock he receives when he witnesses her involvement with another man. The relationship between Daniel and his father is skilfully conveyed as we see the parental ties slowly but inexorably loosen.

The "coming of age" aspect is only a small part of the book. For me it was primarily a closely plotted work of detection and an historical thriller. The story begins in 1945, not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Old scores are still being settled, loyalties change almost by the day and there's an atmosphere of fear about the activities of the police in the form of Inspector Fumero who is nothing more than a psychotic killer. In his presence I felt a complete sense of helplessness. As a teenager Daniel becomes aware of a shadowy man who is trying to buy up all copies of the books by Julián Carax with the intention of burning them. Who is he? Why is he doing this and why will Fumero stop at nothing to trace Carax?

There's a tremendous dramatic tension in the book with its stories of sudden disappearances and lives broken for the flimsiest of reasons. Ultimately it's a magnificent story about a doomed love that someone will go to any lengths to bury in the past. There's Gothic melodrama and even the hint of a ghost story. The plotting is superb as we realise that parts of Carax's book reflect the problems of his own life and then that events in Daniel's life are reflecting the life of the man with whom he's obsessed.

I've barely scraped the surface of the many (or even the main) characters in the book. It's a very varied cast and each is skilfully drawn. All are essential to the plot. They're all three-dimensional and very believable - male and female characters are all equally strong. That's very unusual. The star of the book for me though was the post-war city of Barcelona. It's beautifully drawn and very evocative, but then Zafón is a native.

I enjoyed too the detail about the book trade. Daniel's father is a bookseller and Daniel joins him in the business, but I was fascinated by the details about acquisition and sale of books and their care. I had a real sense of the story being set within a business rather than the way in which people earned their living being an inconvenient fact to be filled in, as in so many novels.

The translation is as close to perfection as you're likely to get. The translator is Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves. It's more usual for her to translate from English into Spanish or Catalan but she has excelled herself with this book. Zafón's style is expansive and witty but Graves loses none of the subtleties of the work. The book is very easy reading and I simply couldn't put it down.

There are sexual references in the book but nothing that I found offensive. Although there are some violent scenes I didn't find any that are gratuitously so - I'd regard this as adult reading but without any other restrictions.

I read a lot of books in 2005. This was the best of them all.

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