In 1945 Barcelona when Daniel Sempere is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Here Daniel is allowed to find one book, and he chooses The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julian Carax. The book so excites the young reader that he begins to search for anything he can find about this mysterious author.
When Daniel is approached by a dark figure who calls himself Lain Coubert, he rushes to hide the precious book. Daniel had previously learned that a man calling himself Coubert had combed the country finding copies of Carax's books to destroy them. Lain Coubert also happens to be a character in The Shadow of the Wind; the character who portrays the devil.
Zafon's novel spans approximately eleven years (with a short chapter at the end another 10 years later). Throughout that eleven years, Daniel searches to solve the mystery of Julian Carax. Along the way he befriends a beggar, Fermin Romero de Torres; he suffers his first heart break; becomes a target for the evil Inspector Fumero; and he falls in love with his best friends' sister, Bea.
The writing in this book is pure poetry. The translation was done by Lucia Graves, and it is a fantastic job to say the least. There were several sections where I said, "really, an American idiom exists in Spanish like that?" Another section stood out to me as well when a distinction was made between the words "lie" and "fib." The language is just extraordinary.
And of course, a book that begins in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is bound to have at least SOME magic to it. I was pulled into a new world when I read the description of the Cemetery:
A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.
And once I was pulled in, I didn't escape until I turned the last page of the book. Daniel had that very same experience when he read Carax's novel:
As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections. The minutes and hours glided by as in a dream. When the cathedral bells tolled midnight, I barely heard them. Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations, peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my room. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page.
The Shadow of the Wind's plot seemed like a Russian doll to Daniel, but the irony is that Zafon created even more dolls outside the plot of Carax's novel. Carax's journey is the next layer, followed by Daniel's experiences and finally the outer doll I believe is the reader. The final layer to this nesting doll, the one who carries the story on beyond Daniel. But, as Daniel explains to Jorge Aldaya, "'Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.'" Hopefully there are many readers who have enough inside themselves to see and appreciate the enormity of this book.
The characters that inhabit this saga are amazing. But the element of characterization that truly makes them what they are is the depth of the relationships that are developed throughout the novel. Fermin is absolutely hysterical, but he wouldn't be nearly so without his ties of devotion to Daniel and Daniel's father. And his relationship with Bernarda adds a kind of contradictory layer to his character, but that layer helps to make him even more real, more human. Fumero is an ideal villain because of his connections to the characters he is pursuing. And his development through his relationships with Carax and his friends only intensifies the hatred that consumes his character.
I found the plot to be very unique. It is crafted in such a way that the reader is able to start putting pieces together on his/her own, BUT don't become too confident in your investigative powers. Chances are excellent that you're going to have a curve thrown your way. I found it very easy to get caught up in all in the language and the characters only to miss the clues Zafon was feeding me. I LOVE that in a plot.
I devoured this novel, but I have to admit that the end did let me down a bit. I'll try to explain this without providing any spoilers. My thoughts are that Zafon simply created too many characters for the book. I didn't find them hard to keep track of because each was so distinct. But the novel is 487 pages long, and I finished it wondering about several characters who didn't seem to have their roles wrapped up. At least I felt there were loose ends that needed more conclusion. And I didn't feel like they were the type of loose ends that are "left to your imagination." These were loose ends that needed to be answered - at least I thought they did.
However, that fact would not keep me from highly recommending this novel. Stephen King has a blurb on the cover: "One gorgeous read." I concur!