When the young son of a book seller begins to lose grip on the memories of his dead mother, his father, desperate to offer a consolation he cannot feel himself, brings him into a great secret: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a final repository for the last remainders of literature high and low, that orphaned copies will only be lost on its shelves and not forever. The boy is permitted to select one book to cherish and protect, and discovers The Shadow of the Wind. He is so swept up by its story that he feels compelled to read everything by its author – but here he stumbles upon the first of several mysteries, for both the author and all his other works have been swallowed up by a dark past. As he grows and delves ever deeper into the mystery the boy draws increasingly dangerous attention to the book, to himself, and to those he loves, threatening a dire fate for himself to rival that of his idol.
I enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind while I was reading it, but almost from the start it was obvious what was going on. It didn’t really matter at the time, but after an appetite-wetting beginning the opening clues integrate with each other so clearly that by page 40 out of 503 you basically know it all. The rest is still good: the story manages to crackle along even if it is somewhat longer than it need be; with few exceptions Zafón paints his lively characters with clear and vivid strokes, and the action and emotion pound away at the stomach and ribcage – but you already know it all. So part of the enjoyment has to come from the filling in of details, some of which I didn’t see coming, rather more I did; and yet much of the technique behind this, while in tribute to a well-loved literary style, seemed clumsily handled. The paralleling of Daniel’s life with Carax’s, too close, too obvious. The vital confession unveiling, for the protagonist at least, all, too omniscient, too convenient – and, for this reader at least, far too late. As for the funereal procession of codae bringing up the rear – too Tolkien.
As I say, I think Zafón writes well, but for what audience I am not sure. From early on I wondered to myself, am I reading Young Adult fiction here but have simply not been told? Some of the content challenged this impression, but only just – the sex just a shade too much, the violence just a little prolonged, perhaps one relationship reveal a touch beyond the pale – while otherwise it seemed comfortably, even admirably appropriate for younger readers, exposing them to a coming of age story wrapped in a rich and unfamiliar world and a worthy bound beyond the fare of Harry Potter. In the author bio, I find that Zafón published four successful YA novels prior to this one – and that is I think what this is, cleverly marketed to the rest of the adult world as an accessible romantic thriller.
So well done. If those who read The Angel’s Game come back and say the writing of Carlos Ruiz Zafón has itself come of age, I will give it a try. If it is more of the same, perhaps I’ll not. There are so many books in the cemetery it might be fairer to look elsewhere. We only needed one copy of a Carax after all.