by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Translated by Lucia Graves.
560 pages, Phoenix
Review by Bill Kirton
This review is wrong, misleading, wilful in its disregard for the book’s acclamation by seasoned professional reviewers. Read it only to sneer at my failure as a reader/critic and pity me for my lack of sensitivity, my imperviousness to ‘great literature’, and my boorish desire to be held more convincingly by a complex narrative. Because, according to others, with much longer CVs as critical reviewers than my own, The Shadow of the Wind is a masterpiece. Entertainment Weekly found it ‘wondrous’ with its ‘[M]asterful, meticulous plotting and extraordinary control over language’ and labelled it ‘a love letter to literature, intended for readers as passionate about storytelling as its young hero’. The hundreds of Amazon reviews average 4 stars and for nearly all the major broadsheets on both sides of the Atlantic, it was awarded the highest grade. (The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle was the only one to demur, finding it to be a ‘tepid potboiler’.)
On top of all that, the book was recommended to me by someone whose taste I respect and who has directed me towards some enthralling reads. All of which proves that my response to the book is wrong, flawed and you should therefore disregard what follows.
OK, it’s a big, complicated book and there are two major threads running through it. From the (dark and secret) Cemetery of Lost Books, the hero Daniel chooses a novel by Julian Carax. Its title? The Shadow of the Wind. He reads it and sets off in search of other works by the same author, but some mysterious person has already been tracking them all down and burning them. And now, in the next 4000 pages – well that’s what it felt like, in actual fact, it’s 544 – the stories of Carax and Daniel mirror one another very closely. There are baddies, goodies, martyrs, sexy women, pure women, true love, comedy, tragedy, violence, vengeance, pure evil, secret chambers, politics, corrupt policemen and enough plot twists and revelations and stories within stories to fill several library shelves.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re all handled with great skill. The language (I read it in translation, of course) is powerful, often poetic in the pure, simple way that real poets manage to master. The characters are well-drawn, the violence hurts and the quieter, calmer moments of love are tender. But the tangled threads Zafon forced me to unpick kept on taking me away from the main narrative thrust and I frequently felt disorientated, impatient. If this were a parody of the old picaresque or Gothic styles, it would fail because it takes itself too seriously (even though there are plenty of funny bits and the occasional neat one-liner). But Zafon clearly has some higher intent than mere parody. He’s playing with the form, creating the strange replication of the Carax story in the Daniel story, setting it all (with relevance) in Franco’s Spain. But why? What’s his aim? To me it wasn’t obvious and by perhaps a third of the way through, I couldn’t care less about any of them. The characters had become elements of whatever puzzle or challenge the author was concocting. With a few exceptions, they appeared and disappeared as I turned the pages, and some of them were away for so long that, when they reappeared, I had to think very hard to remember who they were.
I’m not opposed to experimental techniques or veiled hat-tippings to other novels or literary practices. In the hands of someone like David Mitchell (admittedly a favourite of mine), they’re exhilarating, liberating and as page-turning as a Jeffrey Deaver thriller. In this case, however, they made me impatient. Perhaps it’s because when Zafon does grab your attention, you do get drawn into the story, but then he sets off on a tangent and you feel cheated.
Or perhaps it’s just me. After I’d finished it, I was baffled by my failure to have been moved by it and the overriding feeling that it had been a waste of my time. My earlier remarks about it receiving glowing praise from real critics weren’t intended to suggest, with faux false modesty, that those critics were wrong. Clearly this is a major book and there’s great excitement about the prequel which Zafon is writing or has written. So if anyone has read and enjoyed it, please add a comment that redresses the balance. This is just my opinion and, since it differs so completely from the vast majority of responses, there must be something I missed.