The Shadow of the Wind is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s first adult novel, telling the story of Daniel, a young man tasked with finding out the terrible secrets behind the Spanish writer Julián Carax. In a similar vein to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Umberto Eco, Zafón has produced an immense Gothic novel. Filled with suspense, horror, and surprising wonder, The Shadow of the Wind is a phenomenal piece of writing that fully immerses you in its world
Just after World War II has ended, leaving Barcelona in ruins, we meet Daniel, the son of a bookseller. One day, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library where old, forgotten titles are accumulated by a few chosen booksellers.
“According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive. It’s a very important promise. For life.”
Deep in the bowels of the Cemetery, Daniel picks out a book named “The Shadow of the Wind,” by Julián Carax, an obscure Spanish writer who was never well-known and had died in Paris years ago. But as Daniel grows up, he finds out that there is much more to “Shadow of the Wind” than he first suspected. A strange man is trying to burn every book Carax ever wrote, and Daniel has one of the last remaining copies. Daniel finds himself caught up in a quest to discover who Julián Carax really was, and keep the book safe from the hands of the man who wants to destroy it.
Shadow of the Wind drew my attention in a way that few other novels have done. Only The Brothers Karamazov and a select few other long novels have immersed me in their story in the way that Shadow of the Wind did. Zafón has captured post-WWII Spain in such a vivid light, that the entire book is bathed in it and tastes of it. I felt like I was living two lives while reading this book: my own, and Daniel’s along with my own. All the events are bathed in a spooky postwar atmosphere of death and decay, inexplicably mixed in with joy and life. This contrast is the strongest point of the novel. Zafón is adept at balancing his gravity with beautiful moments of wonder.
All of the characters are strong and relatable, but the real story here is Daniel, our protagonist. Over 487 pages, we see him grow from a boy into a man, and we see every point of his childhood as it slowly is shaped into manhood. We feel his despair and taste his triumphs. Because this is such a long novel, there’s a lot of time to spend with these characters, and they feel like old friends now. Many of the characters we come to know are housed entirely in flashbacks, centered around the life of Julián Carax, the young author who wrote “Shadow of the Wind.” Improbably, as he tries to discover the truth about Carax and his long-dead lover Penelope, Daniel finds his own life following patterns that Carax’s did, and he must maneuver desperately to avoid the same doom.
This is a generational story, following a multitude of characters from boyhood into adulthood, and then doubling back on itself to follow Daniel’s own growth twenty years later. The plot winds in on itself, and it’s one of those stories that’s too complicated to micro-manage. I found Zafón most enjoyable when I threw myself into the flow, allowing myself to be swept along. With such a strong atmosphere as this one, there’s no regret to taking the book in experientially.
Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of adult content, and I can only recommend this book to mature readers who know what they’re getting into. From Daniel’s eleven-year-old sexual fantasies to outright intercourse, this book is filled with content that many may find objectionable. When it concerned the main character, this content was appropriate within the story. So much is riding on Daniel’s decisions and his shadowing of Carax’s own mistakes that any sexual scenes are overshadowed by the larger plot. As Entertainment Weekly put it in their review: “There are places in which the book might seem a little over-the-top (doomed love, gruesome murders) but for Zafon’s masterful, meticulous plotting and extraordinary control over language.” (source)
The other pieces from secondary characters, however, felt unnecessary. Fermín has a vulgar mouth, and Inspector Fumero has twisted designs of vengeance. Overall, however, these secondary characters fade appropriately into the background, leaving the delicate duet between Carax, and Daniel twenty years later, as the main focus of the book.
Zafón has written a book that sucks readers in, to the point where real life could be confused with the life inside. This is the vivid picture he paints. Just as Daniel finds himself trapped in the story of “The Shadow of the Wind,” you will be immersed in this book and unable to leave it until you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.
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