The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
9/10, a gothic thriller set in post-Civil War Barcelona
I had no idea what to expect from this book, which was a Christmas present. The cover promises a “scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling” tale, which I abbreviated above to “gothic,” seeing as how I’m not being paid by the word. Descriptions aside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Shadow of the Wind” lived up to all of the above billing.
It begins with a bookseller taking his son to pick a book from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and already I’m hooked. The son, Daniel, chooses a book called “The Shadow of the Wind,” by an author named Julián Carax, and falls in love with it. Naturally, he tries to find other works by Carax, only to be told that they have been all but eradicated. A visit from a shadowy figure who calls himself by the name Lain Coubert tries to get the book from young Daniel, who recognizes the name as the character of the devil from “Shadow of the Wind,” and refuses.
Zafón’s “Shadow of the Wind” (as opposed to Carax’s) is Daniel’s coming of age story. He falls in love several times over the course of the book, and his story meshes with and parallels the story of young Carax, which we discover as well. Along the way, Daniel enlists several allies, including a charming rogue named Fermín with a chequered past of his own.
Mid-century Barcelona’s streets, secret places, apartments, and rooftops are painted with loving detail, and highlighting that is the walking tour of modern-day Barcelona included at the end of the book. At one point, when one of Daniel’s romantic entanglements tells him she’s considering leaving Barcelona to marry a soldier, he promises to show her a part of Barcelona she’s never seen, to convince her to stay. Only secondarily does he promise to show her something in himself that is better than her fiancé. Barcelona, the city, is essential to the soul of the characters, and Zafón parcels out her character as thoroughly as any of the people in the book.
The adventure slows down in parts, as it must with so many stories to tell, but Zafón never lets it drag for long. By the time the pace does slow, I was used to his style and invested enough in the characters to want to learn more about them. And the backstory is, at times, as compelling as the main story, with its own secrets to be revealed.
My main problem with the book was the translation. It’s lauded elsewhere, but I found it a trifle awkward in parts, especially around the dialogue. It didn’t seem to match with the style of the book, or the time period, one or the other. As they first meet Fermín, bringing him in off the street, Daniel says, “Come on, boss, put these clothes on, if you don’t mind; your erudition is beyond any doubt.” It feels like the words and cadences of a slightly different time, or a non-native English speaker, and it takes me out of the book. Just a bit, but enough to be jarring.
That aside, “Shadow of the Wind” is a terrific ride, filled with wonderful characters and tragic stories, a beautiful city and a bibliocentric plot that is well worth the time to lose yourself in.