The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A review

Hidden amid the back streets of Barcelona is the Cemetery of Lost Books, a repository of out-of-print books that have been salvaged by people who love them. It is there that on a trip with his bookseller father ten-year-old Daniel Sempere discovers a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.  The book is given to him and he reads and rereads it. It thoroughly captures his imagination and he becomes obsessed with the writer. He wants to learn everything about him and to find other books he has written.

But as his investigation soon reveals, this may not be possible. It seems that the book that he has is the last surviving copy of that work. Carax's books are being sought out and destroyed by a strange figure who calls himself Lain Coubert. His life's work is to destroy all copies of Carax's books. The really strange thing is that Lain Coubert is the name of one of Carax's characters. In the book, it is the name of the Devil. 

Daniel spends the next decade of his life following his obsession with Carax. He works to piece together the events of the writer's life and discover where he is if indeed he is still alive. His investigation comes to the attention of an enemy of Carax, a sadistic policeman who begins to take an unhealthy interest in Daniel's life as well.

In fact, as Daniel learns more about Carax, we learn that in many ways the lives of the two parallel each other. The main story takes place in Daniel's Barcelona, but through his inquiries, we discover Julian's pre-Spanish Civil War and World War II world. It was a time when aristocracy and one's family connections to it were everything and the ordinary people had few protections. But one thing they did have was mutual support as they looked out for and took care of each other. Their sense of community in the face of adversity was strong.

For me, this was one of the charms of this book, the writer's celebration of the accord and camaraderie that existed in the neighborhoods of Barcelona. In the face of tyranny, these people persevere and rescue their humanity and honor. And in all of the vicissitudes faced by the characters, books are a refuge. The Cemetery of Lost Books and the bookshop that Daniel and his father run are sanctuaries for those who love literature while those who support tyranny generally do not care for books if they read at all.

I confess I wanted to love this book. I moved it to the top of my reading queue when I heard of the recent untimely death of the author. It started well for me but as I read further, I began to be irritated by the wordiness of it. Zafon seemed incapable of using one word where ten or a hundred would serve. Added to that, the cast of characters soon seemed to encompass the entire population of Barcelona and I found it hard to keep all the relationships straight. 

Also, the book didn't quite seem to know what it wanted to be. A coming-of-age tale? A thriller? An unlikely love story?  And throughout there was also a touch of the supernatural. Books don't necessarily have to fit into neat categories or genres, but a clear vision and purpose is a helpful guide to the reader.

By the time I got to the very, very long post mortem letter by one of the characters that explains all the mysteries of Julian Carax's life, I really didn't care any longer. I just wanted to get it over with. I'm disappointed that I couldn't love it as much as many of the reviewers that I've read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. Too bad that the book was a bit disappointing. It sounds fantastic. The plot sounds both fun and bookish. It sounds mysterious in s fun way. But sometimes good ideas are not executed well.

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    1. Most of the reviews that I've read by fellow bloggers and others have been extremely positive. So I am strictly a contrarian here, but I actually think you might like the book, Brian.

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  2. Nothing turns me off a book so quickly as an overly verbose author who seems to strive to use every word he ever knew, and some he didn't! There was a time when I always struggled through to the end of a book, but in recent years I have learned to recognize when it's time to give in and move on to something else.

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    1. I am one of those readers who insists on finishing books that I start, even if they disappoint me along the way. Sometimes they manage to surprise me and that is delightful.

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  3. I am sure you are right, Dorothy. Sometimes you have to slog on to find the prize!

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    1. It happens often enough that I feel it is worth the effort.

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  4. I understand your troubles with this book. For some reason none of that bothered me and much of it enchanted me. But, readers' rights. To each her own.

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    1. I remember that yours was one of the positive reviews that I read. I may have identified my problem. I read this book directly after reading books by Jane Harper and Ottessa Moshfegh both of whom write very tightly planned plots with no words wasted. It was a mistake to read this book next.

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  5. Too bad. I too want to love this book when I get to it ... but wordiness & a lot of characters might doom me. I'm a bit worried now.

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    1. I think you probably just have to be in the right frame of mind for it and, apparently, I wasn't.

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  6. I've not read anything written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. After his recent death, an acquaintance of mine mentioned that Carlos Ruiz Zafon was one of her favorite authors.

    So, I thought I'd put The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon on my reading wishlist... But after reading your review, I think I'll pass on reading this novel.

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    1. I really wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading it. Your reaction might be more positive. Many readers do love the book.

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