I’ve no idea how this came to feature on my book group’s *crime* reading list this year.

And I ought to: I wrote the list.

Despite my bewilderment regarding how this slipped into the crime category, I did enjoy reading it and did finish it. I’m not sure how many members of my book group will be able to say the same!

What’s it about?

1945. At the tender age of 10, motherless Daniel Sempere is taken by his father to the ‘Cemetery of Lost Books’ in Barcelona, an archive of titles which would otherwise be neglected and forgotten. Daniel is allowed to choose one book to take home with him, to guard and treasure for the rest of his life.

As befits a 10 year old, he takes this bequest incredibly seriously, falling in love with the book he chooses – ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Julian Carax – and refusing to part with it, even when it seems that he may be in danger as a direct consequence.

As Daniel grows older and begins to learn about love and life, his fascination with the mysterious author and his life grows. What is the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax? Who is burning all Carax’s books? Daniel’s obsession may cost him all he holds dear – or it may be the saving and making of him.

What’s it like?

Literary with deeply gothic overtones. It’s a historical romance set within and after Barcelona’s civil war, featuring a cast of characters whose destinies are fatefully entwined. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is by turns almost mythical, magical and even verges on farce where one particular character (Fermin Romero de Torres) is concerned.

I loved this for the intensely evoked atmosphere and the beautiful language. So we learn that:

‘Barcelo signalled to a waiter of such remarkable decrepitude that he looked as if he should be declared a national landmark.’

The book Daniel becomes so obsessed with is introduced with the following damning statement:

‘The blurb, written in the mouldy, pompous style of the age, proclaimed that this was a first work of dazzling courage, the mark of a trailblazing and protean talent, and a milestone for the entire future of European letters. In spite of such solemn claims, the synopsis that followed suggested that the story contained some vaguely sinister elements slowly marinated in saucy melodrama’.

Marinated. Saucy. Melodrama. Love it.

Of course, not all readers enjoy prolix prose and so some may find the constant elevation of every detail ultimately off-putting. This final quotation, for instance, could seem overdone:

‘On the other side of the wall, Sophie slowly faded away, her life shipwrecked on a sea of disappointment, isolation and guilt.’


Tell me more

Well there’s a villain so sinister he’s practically the devil – the extraordinarily malevolent Inspector Fumero, a spider who has climbed to success on the backs of a veritable avalanche of corpses he created – and another villain who claims to be the devil (or, at least, to be Carax’s version of him).

There’s an entertaining supporting cast of minor characters, including, but by no means limited to: the elderly citizen of a retirement home who demands payment for information in the form of a firm, young prostitute; the music teacher who scores with all his young protĂ©gĂ©es; and the shopkeeper who likes to wear a dress and sing cabaret.

Then there’s our young hero, Daniel, naive and often spectacularly thoughtless, falling in love in as startling and unfathomable a manner as Romeo and Juliet and almost suffering a similarly dark conclusion.

There’s an interesting concept of destiny at work in this story. Various characters seem to simply accept that their lot in life is to suffer and to repeat the same futile interactions and mistakes. In a sense the whole story could be seen as a complex framing device to give Daniel a reason to grow up enough to decide to really take charge of his life.

I can’t read Spanish so can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation, but it feels excellent. Lucia Graves has captured the brooding sentiments of the author and the whole work flows beautifully. There are no awkward phrases or jarring moments.

So are there any flaws?

Oh yes.

In a novel teeming with so many characters it may be that readers fail to be interested in a few of the more minor ones, leading them to skim relevant passages. Personally, I had little interest in the hatter, though I confess that he ultimately evolved into quite an interesting character.

More significantly, the perspective is sometimes a little “off”. A significant chunk of the book is devoted to Nuria Monfort’s perspective on events, which is fine…except that she frequently writes about scenes she was not privy to and, at points, exposes entire schemes which she must have been ignorant of. Whether we are meant to grant her imaginative licence or assume that her writings are being supplemented by our author’s, it feels a little odd.

Finally, in a narrative largely devoid of trickery, I really disliked Daniel suddenly telling us that:

‘In seven days’ time, I would be dead.’

Was this novel about to become truly supernatural? Was it actually being narrated by a ghost? Well, no, but I disliked the attempt to startle the reader into attention and the deliberate distortion of the actual events of seven days time. In a novel that otherwise relied so heavily on the pull of the story this felt like a tacky gimmick.

Final thoughts

If you enjoy slow-paced stories packed with a range of mildly odd characters and spiced with historical sadness, then this will be perfect reading for you.

The brutal aftermath of the civil war is chillingly evoked:

‘In those days I learned that nothing is more frightening than a hero who has lived to tell his story, to tell what all those who fell at his side will never be able to tell…When peace finally came, it was the sort of peace that haunts prisons and cemeteries, a shroud of silence and shame that rots the soul.’

Read it for the language, the atmosphere and the insight into Barcelona in the 50s.

Forgive it the melodrama inherent in the concept of young-couple-madly-in-love-despite-severe-familial-opposition.

Remember it for the sense of a young man taking charge of his destiny.

‘The Shadow of the Wind’,
Carlos Ruiz Zafon,
2005, Phoenix, paperback