“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down the pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.”
That’s one of the characters in the story describing the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you read that description and rolled your eyes, you may go. There’s nothing here for you. If, however, you read that and thought that you would give your left foot for the chance to visit that place in real life, you may continue.
In Barcelona in 1945, ten-year-old Daniel Sempere’s father brings him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and tells him to choose one book to adopt. The one Daniel chooses is called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Daniel reads the book, falls in love with it, and tries to find more works by the author. He then makes a strange discovery: someone has been hunting down copies of every Carax novel in existence and burning them – Daniel owns what is perhaps the last Carax novel in the world. We fast-forward seven years, and someone comes looking for Daniel’s copy of The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel, assisted by his friend Fermin (a homeless former spy who is also one of the best people on the planet), begins tracking down everyone who knew Carax before his death in 1935 and trying to figure out who wants to destroy his books. As he learns more about Carax’s life, Daniel’s own life begins to mirror the author’s, and he has to find out what happened to the author before Carax’s enemies track him down.
It’s Gothic as all get-out, with abandoned mansions (the grounds of which include dismantled angel statues – don’t blink), curses, explosive secrets, conspiracies, evil policemen, plots, and general skullduggery. The ideal time to read this is during a thunderstorm, preferably by candlelight.
The book is flawed, I admit that freely. The prose is a little too invested in the Gothic mood and ranges from melodramatic (“…I now imagined Nuria Monfort sitting alone, silently tidying up her pencils, her folders, and her memories, her eyes poisoned with tears.”) to hysterical (as when the narrator informs the reader, in all caps, “IN SEVEN DAYS’ TIME, I WOULD BE DEAD.”) Similarly, the characters, while all entertaining and fully realized, don’t vary much. The men can all be divided into two camps: the intelligent, noble, soft-spoken good guys; and the psychotic bullies. (and all the good guys love reading, and all the bad guys hate books – I know this because Zafon makes it a point of telling us) As for the women, they’re all either dangerous femme fatales or innocent beautiful snowflake objects (emphasis on objects) of male worship who are the source of most conflict between the male characters, and as soon as they have sex with someone everything goes to shit. The Virgin/Whore dichotomy here is so extreme you can snowboard through it. Also, a lot of the important stuff is revealed through overly long self-indulgent flashbacks (written in italics, natch) and the book ends about five chapters too late.
I acknowledge these faults, and I do not care. And this is because, once you get past the spooky shadow puppets Zafon is creating, you can see that this book (despite its melodrama and unrealistic aspects) is, at its core, a love letter to books and the art of reading. Remember the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Its whole purpose is to make sure that no book, no matter how insignificant, is never forgotten and never lost. It’s no accident that Daniel’s father owns a bookshop, and that all the good characters in this story, as I mentioned, love to read. And Daniel’s whole motivation for investigating Carax’s life is that he loved The Shadow of the Wind so much that he couldn’t let it go. The book becomes more than a book for Daniel, because it’s the first book he read that felt like it was his, and his alone. We all know that feeling – you find a book, and something about it makes you feel like you’re the only person in history who has ever read it. The book belongs to you just as much as you belong to it, and it never leaves you. That is the motivation behind The Shadow of the Wind – the love of books, and how they change our lives. All the Gothic adventure stuff is just the icing on the cake.
Verdict: five out of five stars