Friday, February 01, 2013

Book review: The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's fascinating and highly-entertaining novel, The Shadow of the Wind, is difficult to describe. Is it a coming-of-age story? A comedy? A Gothic horror? The novel contains elements that lend themselves to each of those genres. Convincingly so. But Zafón is an adept and versatile writer and his novel defies blanket categorization.

The Shadow of the Wind is the first of four planned novels (as of this writing I believe only two of them have been written) that deal with a mysterious bibliotheca in Barcelona called the Cemetery of Lost Books.The novel's protagonist, Daniel Sempere, learns of the Cemetery when, at 10 years of age, his father takes him there to distract him from the death of his mother. The Cemetery is a labyrinth populated with obscure, mostly forgotten books. Daniel finds a book entitled "The Shadow of the Wind" by a mysterious author named Julián Carax, which Daniel reads and becomes enamored with. The book is such a rare find that, when a book collector catches wind of Daniel's discovery, word soon spreads. A host of characters, both good and evil, come into Daniel's life as a result, setting in motion a series of events that evoke dark shadows from Barcelona's past. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship.

The novel benefits from a complex plot and an extensive cast of fascinating, well-drawn characters. Zafón obviously delights in story-telling. Every character, from Daniel's sage and hilarious mentor, Fermín Romero de Torres to sinister Inspector Fumero, and even including the minor characters (taxi drivers, prostitutes, servants), has an elaborate background and history. The relationships between the characters and the complicated plot lines are testament to Zafón's skills as a novelist. It takes an enormous amount of skill to pull something like this off.

Although the novel is translated from Spanish, I think it was one of the better translations I've read. The prose was vivid and highly descriptive and the humor came through very well. (Parts of the novel, in particular some of the exchanges between Fermín and Daniel, were knee-slapping funny.)

I especially enjoyed references to places I had visited (Les Quatre Gats, for example) when I was in Barcelona in 1999.

The obvious comparison for any Spanish-language author is, of course, Gabriel García Márquez. But due to his sure-footed genre-hopping, I'd also compare Zafón with David Mitchell. In both cases, Zafón holds his own quite well.

The Shadow of the Wind is a great book. If you get the chance, read it!

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