Carlos Ruiz Zafon,
The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento)
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)

The Shadow of the Wind is a unique blend of a number of genres, most notably mystery, but also melodrama, coming-of-age, thriller, romance and more. For some authors, the challenge to perfect such an eclectic mixture is daunting and assuredly becomes a recipe for disaster. Though for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, he convincingly stands up to the task, penning a fantastic, page-turning novel that kept my interest peaked throughout the duration of the story, a feat I haven't run into since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code about five years ago.

A downside, however, is deciding on a plot summary to be inserted in this graph that (a) doesn't ruin the surprises you will run into along the way and (b) doesn't completely dilute the plot into such simplicity as to make readers of this review -- much like yourself -- wonder how I could have fallen for Zafon's novel in the first place. With that warning out of the way, what I can say is that the story revolves around a young boy named Daniel who is invited by his father one day to pay a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a hidden library in Barcelona, Spain, filled to the brim with obscure and -- as its name suggests -- forgotten texts. Allowed to take one book with him from a seemingly endless supply of shelving, Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, a novel his father tells him he must now protect -- at any cost -- for the rest of his life.

Upon reading Carax's novel in one sitting, 10-year-old Daniel is spellbound and must immediately consume more Carax lit, of which he can find none. As Daniel grows up, while at the same time continuing his relentless search, several people become increasingly interested in his find. It then turns into a race against time, as Daniel must uncover the truth behind Carax's mysterious past and salvage those still alive.

What innately interested me about the book from the start is the utter complexity in Zafon's narrative. New, well-rounded characters pop up from just about everywhere. To face the challenge head-on, I decided -- a first, for me -- to have by my side a pen and paper, which I added names (and their importance) to when they first appeared in the book. Beginning with a simple collection of names -- hey, this isn't so bad! -- my list quietly grew to well over 50 by the final chapter. Coupled with this is the complexity of the story itself, in which Zafon spreads the subplots on thick -- and where many subplots, in fact, carry their own subplots. Yet so long as readers remain attentive to the revolving characters and narrative, the novel hardly runs the risk of turning into confusing slop.

Though Zafon's storytelling sometimes comes off a bit too flowery for my taste, what must be said is that he's only partly blamed for this minor flaw. Zafon's native tongue is Spanish, not English like the version I read. He originally wrote La Sombra del Viento in 2001, with the Spanish version being translated into English a few years later by Lucia Graves, daughter of the late poet Robert Graves. Though her sprinkling of lovely phrases reads rather well, it regrettably grows a bit tiresome when reading huge chunks of the novel at single sittings.

Even so, Zafon's English version comes highly recommended. It is an absolute tour-de-force, stuffed with an excessive supply of plot twists to create a decidedly delicious read.

review by
Eric Hughes

13 September 2008

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