The Shadow of the Wind is, without a doubt, one of the best novels I have read. Ever. If you enjoy fiction (either just the reading of it or a general appreciation for it on a grander scale) or if you’re a bibliophile and you haven’t read this book you are doing yourself a huge disservice. The Shadow of the Wind is one part bildungsroman, one part gothic romance, one part mystery, and one part paean to the power of books and reading. It is a novel that functions on multiple levels and its subtly striated narrative structure will likely appear different based upon what each reader will bring to the reading.
The plot of the novel follows young Daniel Sempere as he discovers a book being shown the secret “Cemetery of Lost Books,” a mysterious library that houses countless tomes of authors known and unknown. There he discovers a book, the titular Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax and, in a scene familiar to any avid reader, Daniel consumes the book in a single night. From there he sets himself the task of uncovering the story behind the story, of discovering the secrets behind its mysterious author. That is, of course, not what the novel is really about merely the framework that the novel’s commentary on youth, life, love, death, the past, and fiction hangs upon.
Daniel’s journey to ferret out Carax’s story is more about the journey itself than the end result. Like any heroic question it is a discovery of self as much as anything else. Zafon, takes this in a fascinating direction as Daniel’s journey of self-discovery is enacted through his discovery of a stranger. Zafon very clearly creates distinct parallels between Carax and Daniel. While not quite so obvious at the start, quick comments about physical similarities between the two (Daniel even masquerades as Carax’s son at one point) it becomes increasingly overt. I won’t reveal details, they would spoil the plot too much, but the parallels really reach their apex when one looks at each character’s relationships. Not just who they fall in love with but the paths that the relationships take are nearly synonymous.
For me the book’s most enjoyable character was Fermin. A beggar turned employee/friend Fermin is part rogue, part philosopher and serves as Daniel’s mentor in all worldly things. He dispenses advice to Daniel on just about everything from love (“Love is a lot like pork: there’s loin steak and there’s bologna”) to destiny (“the one thing it doesn’t do is make house calls”) and just about everything indeed. typically colored with just as much wit as truth. Fermin’s streetwise platitudes inject a sense of fun and entertainment into many scenes that could have otherwise been heavy on exposition and backstory. That isn’t to say other characters aren’t likable but Fermin is certainly the most colorful of the bunch. Combining both a mentor figure and comic relief into one character is a winning formula here; it also helps that Zafon doesn’t skimp on giving Fermin a solid, though tragic, backstory.
Zafon employs frequent elements of the gothic throughout the novel. From the mist shroud cemetery of the novel’s opening pages, to Daniel’s first glimpse of a mysterious shadowed figure, to the exploration of the abandonment mansion with it crumbling angelic statues the gothic elements suffuse the novel with a sort of timelessness that when combined with Barcelona’s old world stylings belay the novel’s 20th century time period. Throw in lengthy flashbacks detailing events in Carax’s life and the frequent links between Daniel’s present and Carax’s past and you have a novel that feels lost in time, or at least a novel to which time is almost irrelevant.
As much as I’m lauding my praise on the quality of Zafon’s prose I should perhaps be heaping just as much, if not more, on the novel’s translater: Lucia Graves. Never once did a single bit of text remind that this was a novel that was translated. The English flows like it was the novels native language; absolutely phenomenal job. I know I don’t have anything to compare it to but regardless there was never anything even remotely resembling an awkward moment.
As fantastic as I thought the book was I felt the ending was a bit lackluster. While it wasn’t entirely sunshine and roses everything wrapped up a bit too neatly for me to feel entirely satisfied with how things ended. Regardless, I think that The Shadow of the Wind is a wonderful novel that reminded why I started reading in the first place. I don’t know if I would call it easy reading though, despite the quality of the prose the novel is dense with subtext. Fans of fiction and reading should definatley pick up a copy of The Shadow of the Wind perferably before Zafon’s latest novel, The Angel Game, hit the U.S. this June.