Discussion location: Las Iguanas (not Spanish, but good tapas)

 Chosen by: Becki Jay

Reason for choice: Another book destroyed faith in literature, worried that would hate another book as much, but this and One Day (David Nicholls) restored faith.

Best lines:

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you” ~ Julian

“The moment you stop to think about whether you love someone, you’ve already stopped loving that person forever.” ~ Julian

 “Few things leave a deeper mark on the reader, than the first book that finds its way to his heart.” ~ Daniel

Review:

The Shadow of the Wind, (or La Sombra del Viento) is the first ‘adult’ novel by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and despite only being published in 2001,is reportedly one of the best selling books of all time, critically acclaimed and winner of numerous international awards.  Incredibly well written, with an intriguing central mystery expanding into a tangle of plotlines, a wide range and depth of characters, spanning across vivid descriptions of Barcelona and several decades, it is not difficult to see why.

The story begins in 1940’s post-civil war Barcelona,  as ten year old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father to the labyrinth-like ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ where he is permitted to take any book on the premise that he will guard it for the rest of his life. Daniel is compelled towards a book named ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and reads it cover to cover that same night.  Entranced by the novel, he tries to find more books by the author, Julián Carax and finds that nothing has been heard of him since 1919. Through Zafon’s novel of the same title, Daniel embarks on a journey to discover the fate of Carax, through an array of characters and locations.

The descriptions of Barcelona throughout the novel invoke not only a strong sense of Spanish identity, but of both nostalgia and embracing the unknown, indicative of a post-war country. Moreover, the depictions of the city are so evocative that they rouse the desire to visit the settings, such as ‘The Angel of the Mist’ on MountTibidabo, and ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, which one cannot help but wish was real. (The success of this must also be attributed to the excellent translation by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert.)

Much of the strength of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is derived from Zafón’s wonderful depiction of character.  In particular, the two main characters of the novel are complex, authentic and likeable; from the coming-of-age, curious Daniel to the loveable womaniser-come-good and political outlaw Fermín (arguably the best character in the novel).  Furthermore, Zafón does not neglect the sub-characters to mere stereotypes, but develops their back stories, such as the the old man in the asylum who simply wants to spend a night with a prostitute before he dies. Here, Zafón’s attention to detail is displayed in minor details such as Daniel and Fermín remembering to repay the old man by sneaking a prostitute in for him at the end of the novel.

This thoroughness is exhibited throughout the novel in the intricacy of interwoven plots and characters that gradually unravel through conversations and letters.  Not only are the revelations consistent (such as Fumero’s unpleasant childhood), but are carefully arranged to give the most potency to their disclosure.  Furthermore, Zafón cleverly creates a multi-narrated story through a lone narrator, with the use of letters and parts of the story being re-told by other characters, and stories within stories; enabling veiled truths , such as Nuria Monfort’s lies to lead Daniel off the trail, and embed the mystery further.

The portrayal of women in the novel has been widely discussed by critics, as the women of Daniel’s world are elusive; the enigmatic Nuria who tells Daniel half-truths; his dead, almost angelic mother, whose face he cannot recall; the beautiful, blind book lover, Clara Barcelo who he discovers in bed with her music teacher; Carax’s lover Penelope who also vanished circa 1919; and Beatriz, who is firstly engaged to a soldier in Franco’s army, and is then locked away by her father. Furthermore, the descriptions of women during the sexual scenes of the novel are rather like flayed swans – arched backs and glistening breasts. Yet, perhaps this treatment of women can be explained by Fermín’s assertion that “nobody knows much about women, not even Freud, not even women themselves”.

Arguably, by the end of the novel, both Daniel and Fermín have found love, and the end of the novel is a little ‘disney’, though it is difficult to begrudge such likeable characters for not dying or ending up miserable and alone.  Moreover, since the novel is fraught with tension, such as when Fermín is accused of murder, a non-happy ending might have lowered the tone.

This sophisticated novel is greatly let down by its blurb, which would do nothing to encourage the potential reader.  Perhaps the only warning label that should be attached to The Shadow of the Wind is ‘not for the faint hearted’, as its flowery language and complexity of characters and plots can be difficult to follow, especially if you cannot read the book continuously and must try to recall where you were last.

Indeed, the novel does lend itself well to a film adaptation, though Zafón has stated “I have no particular wish to see a film made of the novel. I don’t believe everything has to become a movie… Nobody can make a better film of this novel than the one you’ll start to see when you begin to read its first pages.”

Overall rating: 8/10

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of ingenuity; a complex story of love, mystery, murder and history; of wonderful characters and beautiful scenery.  Read this and go up a reading age.

Plot synopsis to follow when I find my memory stick…

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