on May 25, 2004
The enthusiastic praise and adulation which critics have accorded the english publication of Carlo Ruiz Zafon's first novel, "The Shadow of the Wind", may trouble the reader who begins the book, worried that little might match his expectations. After all, reviewers who compare a writer's work to a combination of Umberto Eco, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or other literary giants, compel the reader to expect to be transported when they open the book.
Not to worry.
Once started, the single downside for the reader will be knowing that the experience must end. The plot is quite complex, the jacket cover's synopsis will give the reader all he needs to know. The important thing is to read it slowly and carefully.
A mystery story, a fairy tale, a love story (actually several love stories), a passion for literature, a treatise on politics, a bawdy tale, with love, hate, courage, intrigue, loss of innocence, humor, cowardice, villainy, cruelty, compassion, regret, murder, incest, redemption, and more. Add to this delicious mixture characters who come alive, and whose thoughts and feelings you will feel deeply.
What a great pleasure to discover; an extraordinary first work, one which towers over the endless and repetative volumes which inhabit today's "Best Seller" lists. Read it, and become hypnotized.
on July 29, 2004
Zafón's storytelling skill is quite remarkable, his prose doesn't just take you into the story, it completely transports you. In only a few sentances. Zafón crafts a world of remarkable visions and events--just a little bit magical (as all the best stories really are) but grounded in characters who live, breathe, and merrily cavort off the page and into your heart.
But Zafón isn't just a strong storyteller with an exact sense of prose (and my compliments to the excellent translation!), Shadow of the Wind connects to people, it's almost a watershed. It's been a long time since I've been so excited about a book. I tell -everyone- to read it: best friends, my mom, relatives, people I work with--they're all hearing raves from me. And I don't do that lightly, but this book is joyous and sad, heartfelt and even wise.
But most important of all is that Shadow of the Wind is true. It's one of those rare books where you don't just hear 'their' story, it becomes your story as well. To loosely quote Caráx, "it holds up a mirror and a window to your soul," because it teaches us about who we are--about the communities that bind and define you.
And every single moment Fermín Romero de Torres was 'on screen' I had the biggest grins on my face, truly one of the great characters of literature.
I've not a single criticism or reservation about this book, and that puts Zafón on an extremely short list with Mark Twain, Frank Herbert and Orson Scott Card.
That it's so tempting to read SHADOW OF THE WIND is a tribute to clever marketing. Comparisons to Marquez, Borges, and Dickens mix with gushing tributes from Stephen King and references to best-sellerdom in Spain. The literary come-on is hard to resist.
In the end however, the way you respond to this book will depend on what expectations you bring to it. If you anticipate a reading experience worthy of those heady literary comparisons, you'll be sorely disappointed - Zafon is little closer to Garcia Marquez than Stephen King is. The closest he comes is having the temerity to give a minor character, a boyfriend of Beatriz Aguilar's, the family name Buendia, the prolific clan from ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. If you plan, however, on a fantastical romp through a mid-century Barcelona converted wholesale into a gothic swamp of ghosts, shadows, haunted houses, malevolent, revenge-seeking, jilted lovers, swooning virginal maidens, improbably picaresque characters, unbelievable coincidences, parallelisms, and twists of fate, and a host of pseudo-Freudian relationships, you'll love every minute.
The story line of SHADOW OF THE WIND is so complex and convoluted, it's nearly impossible to relate in less space than the book's own 487 pages. Suffice to say, the premise is drawn from the search of a teenaged boy named Daniel for the truth about the fate of Julian Carax, the author of a mystery story (also named "Shadow of the Wind") that Daniel has adopted and read after his bibliophilic father takes him on a "coming of age" excursion to the aptly metaphorical Cemetary of Forgotten Books. Carax has apparently written a number of other books, all of them commercial failures, yet someone has been traveling Europe to find and burn every extant copy of Carax's works.
With twists and turns that would make the Minotaur's head spin in his Labyrinth, Zafon spins multiple parallel tales of Platonic love, blind love (both literal and figurative), failed love, enduring love, filial love, forbidden love, and unrequited love. Through it all looms the mystery of Julian Carax. Is he alive or dead? Who is burning his books, and why? Who is the char-faced phantom? Why does the evil Fumero seek such hate-filled revenge? Will young Daniel ever find his true love?
Zafon's book could be easily parodied or brushed aside as little more than a Barbara Cartland romance, but his writing is better than that despite being too often over the top. From the opening page where Daniel describes his mother's death as "a deafening silence I had not learned to stifle with words," Zafon mixes searing images and thoughtful observations with engagingly quirky characters such as Fermin Romero de Torres who capture the reader's imagination and heart like 20th century Sancho Panzas and Dulcineas to Daniel's idealistically questing Quixote.
Unfortunately, these pluses are offset by unrelenting and heavy-handed atmospherics in which every page is marked by clouds, shadows, mists, flickering candles, twilights, smoke, rubble, ruins, twisted heaps, blood, and "glutinous darkness," and the like. Florid prose abounds: "The white marble was scored with black tears of dampness that looked like blood dripping out of the clefts left by the engraver's chisel. They lay side by side, like chained maledictions." Readers must also contend with two laughably miraculous conceptions, both occurring after first night trysts (a tribute perhaps to the ineffable virility of Spanish males?), and an unfortunately anachronistic request by a Barcelona doctor in 1954 for a "brain scan" of an injured Fermin (page 288).
Net net, SHADOW OF THE WINDS is entertaining escapism with modest literary pretensions. Enjoy it for what it is, but don't expect it to be more than it is.
Reading "The Shadow Of The Wind" was both a delight and a disappointment. This novel had the potential to be excellent literary fiction. At times Carlos Ruiz Zafon's writing reminded me of both Gabriel Garcia Marquez's and Jorge Luis Borges' work. My expectations rose dramatically as I began to hope for more than a good read. Instead of great literature, however, the novel became an overlong and predictable bestseller, with a most original premise, some brilliant passages and many flaws.
Sr. Ruiz Zafon's extraordinary idea of creating a Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthian library where each book awaits someone to choose it and give it another chance to live by making it part of the new owner's life, gave me chills. There existed a possibility, as I read the first chapters, that I might be able to list this as one of my favorite works of fiction. Unfortunately, my disappointment when reaching the novel's conclusion overshadowed the book's many positive elements.
Daniel Sempere is a young boy who fears he has forgotten the image of his dead mother's face. His compassionate father, an antiquarian book dealer, introduces him to the book cemetery. Daniel and Sr. Sempere are both memorable and unusual characters, as are many of Ruiz Zafon's other figures. Fermin, a former Republican agent who becomes a second father to Daniel, and Julian Carax, the author of the book Daniel selects, are both extraordinary men. Daniel's choice of books ultimately determines the course of his life, as he tries to discover if the author is still alive and solve the multitude of mysteries surrounding him. The setting, post-WWII Barcelona, is fascinating and Zafon depicts a brooding city in mourning as a result of the atrocities of both civil and world wars. The rich plot and various subplots, filled with passion, obsession and revenge, have such potential but become terribly convoluted and lose coherence at times. There is much too much information given about some of the characters, their rationales, and oddly enough, about an ancient, haunted house. Much of the mysterious ambiance is lost as a result of all the unwieldy description. Here, the concept "less is more" would have strongly improved the narrative. The entire novel could have been cut by a third, perhaps, and made a better, tighter book without losing any of the story or character development. I am a big fan of long, juicy novels, but the length should have a purpose and enhance the tale. The author has focused more on the melodramatic rather than the literary elements. Some may not care, as this is an excellent read. I did care though, as I see so much more potential here and hope the author lives up to it next time.
I do recommend "The Shadow Of The Wind." Most will find it highly enjoyable, as did I. I just expected more.
on May 7, 2004
I finished reading this intensely seductive and rewarding masterpiece two days ago. Since then I've been unable to get it out of my mind, and I think you won't either. The characters, the plot and specially the extremely powerful and clever brand of storytelling deployed here seem to have left me under a spell that I can't remember experiencing with any other book I've read in the last 25 years. The promise of the magic first few pages, a stunning and seductive journey to a wonderful place called "the cemetery of forgotten books", not only doesn't let down, but steadily builds up into a magnificent saga of intrigue, romance, passion, murder, satire and even spine-chilling touches of gothic suspense. This is literature of the highest order, but I think it is also the most intelligent, often wickedly so, piece of entertainment I've come across. It manages to be at the same time an epic love story, a spellbinding mystery about enigmatic books, a meditation on the power of literature and the boundaries between fact and fiction and a grand saga in the tradition of the 19th century classics. I could see a lot of Dickens and Victor Hugo here, but somehow powered and intensified by an mesmerizing cinematic drive that places the reader inside the story and its world. I read for hours on end, marveled by the language, the wonderfully drawn characters and the many secrets of the story. I felt echoes of Poe, Borges, Garcia Marquez, Eco, Wilkie Collins, Balzac and many others. But the voice here was entirely original, unique, unlike anything else I've read before. And modern, very modern, despite the references to those classic novels. I think a book like this comes once in a reader's lifetime. It becomes much more than a engrossing read, it reminds you why you are a reader and makes you much more aware of the power of great literature to touch your life. Above all, I don't remember having this much fun in ages, and at the same time I was moved, sometimes to tears, sometimes to terror, sometimes to hysterical laugh, beyond what I had thought a book could take me to. As I was reaching the conclusion, I felt I did not want it to end. I would reread scenes or chapters, much like young Daniel does in the novel when he finds the book that will change his life. In many ways this shadow of the wind made me a young Daniel, made me experience again the thrills of first love, the times when life held mystery and promise and I dreamed some day I could find and experience such a extraordinary work of fiction as this one. I recommend this novel 100%. I would even urge you to read it and not miss what most possibly will be one of the most intense, engrossing, rewarding and magical experiences in your life as a reader.
on December 21, 2004
It would take a lot for me to rate a book as 5 stars, but here is one. There is little to criticise about this book as it is very nearly perfect, however it does divulge a lot of the plot, or history of Julian, in large chunks. It has a fluent, eloquent writing style, despite it being a translation, that makes it a pleasure to read, and it includes many subplots, that in itself contain subplots, all of which are precisely explained. It's a magical book which lets you appreciate the art of reading at a level that is rarely experienced. I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for one of the best reads of their life.
on September 11, 2004
I've read the Spanish edition. I can tell you it's been a runaway success; most people I have talked to liked it. But I didn't. It's well written, and the characters are well described and likable, but, at the end of the day, it is a Gothic soap opera. Lots of unknown relations, ghoulish cops, disfigured good guys, mansions in the darkness during a hailstorm... 3/4 into the novel, you expect everybody to have been married and/or in love and/or be the second removed cousin of everybody else.
The first half of the novel is the best, it hints to a Gothic-soap spoof; but, in the second half, it fully falls into being a Gothic soap.
This novel owes a lot to "City of prodigies", by Eduardo Mendoza, which is far better.
Wow, this was an addictive read. I had heard great things about this novel from customers in the book shop where Iw orked, and I finally sat down this weekend to read it. I must say, I had trouble putting it down, even when I looked at my alarm clock and realized that it was four in the morning, and I had to be at work in four hours.
Zafon has earned comparison to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this is common for authors who write novels with any hint of mysteriousness in the plot who write in Spanish, and I found his style to be unique and refreshing.
My comlaints are few, but large enough to dock one star from an otherwise great novel. First of all, the translation is extrememly weak. In the first fifty pages or so, I counted three idiomatic Spanish expressions that do not make sense translated literally into English, but for which there are appropriate English phrases, that were translated literally into English, and this was quite annoying. The prose was very wooden at times, and in the context of this novel, with its riveting storyline, I felt that I had to agree with Pablo Neruda: If you are going to translate a work, you shoudl improve upon it - or at least capture the poetic nature of the language and not just the words.
My biggest complaint, however, is that after 400 pages of loose ends in the plot, the author resolves all of them with a 100 page letter from one of the characters. This was lame. I really feel that Zafon, having constructed such a beautiful story up until this point, had the capability of artfully tying up all of these lose ends with the in the storyline itself. This smacked of pure laziness of the part of the author. I would have gladly read another 300 pages of this novel, good as it was, if that is what it took to tie up these lose ends.
Other than that, this was a great read. Highly recommended.
on February 11, 2005
I loved this book. I found the plot gripping and mysterious, the characters interesting, the atmosphere dark and convincing. I couldn't put it down. I like a good mystery and this a good one. I guessed one of the main plot twists as well -- I think you are supposed to get that one early. It doesn't detract from the suspense. The characters held my interest all along. The writing (and translation -- I read it in English, not the original Spanish) is crisp and clear and yet uses a quirky and evocative vocabulary to paint a strong picture without being self-consciously "literary."
The words that come from the mouth of Fermin are brilliant. He's is the crazy, wise, over-the-top sage. The parallels in the story are satisfying.
Several reviewers have complained about the plot. What's not to like? It's complex, intriguing, twisted. And the story has a satisfactory resolution in the end. You also find out who the characters are and what happens to them.
This novel was a huge best seller in Spain. I found the translation by Lucia Graves (daughter of Robert Graves) to be excellent.
Some reviewers are picking nits such as errors in historical minutiae, Spanish grammar, and geography. (I have spent a lot of time in Europe and have been to Spain, but the "errors" didn't bother me any. One reviewer even admits that he is guessing that the must be errors of Barcelona geography.) It's a novel! When the complaints go to that low a level, it should indicate to you how good the book is overall. Other reviewers have unfavorably contrasted the book to G. Marquez's, "100 Years of Solitude." Well, OK, if you have to use a Nobel Prize winner to draw a constrast, that should also indicate the level this book reaches!
I would compare this novel to, "Girl With a Pearl Earring," "The Way the Crow Flies," "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." It's very different from all of these; but it shares with them a evocation of mood, strong characters, and the ability to draw you into the book and make you want to keep on reading. And excellent read.
on June 6, 2006
This is perhaps the most entertaining book I have read in the past year, and far exceeds the spectacularly disappointing The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The characters are interesting and gain our empathy and the dialogue is at times as witty as I have ever read. I laughed and smiled my way through much of the book. The central conceit of the story is its greatest triumph. It is a wonderfully intriguing narrative that has as its foundation the love and magic of books. But, the book is not without its shortcomings and this is where it loses its fifth star.
The major shortcoming comes at the end where the narrative of an exceedingly long (though not unexpectedly well written) letter penned by a character who meets an untimely demise is used to explain the entire mystery. After the protagonist, Daniel, sleuths his way through the book finding all the pieces of the puzzle it is all conveniently put together for him just like that. I think that if he were allowed to figure it out in larger part on his own it would have had more impact for the reader. And, because it is all related by a single individual in what amounts to a giant flashback (and there are several of these earlier in the book) the the book lacks any real emotional buildup to the final denouement that follows immediately afterward. The ending just seems to suddenly happen. On top of this, at the very end the author conveniently provides an "and they all lived happily ever after" postscript that was entirely unnecessary and really not worthy of the rest of the book. For a story of such wonderfully intricate complexity in which the theme of lost love played such a major role such a neat ending was ill-conceived. This left me feeling a bit disappointed.
However, that said, the book as a whole was a terrific read and I recommend it heartily. The character of Fermin in particular was a treasure. I can't help but think that everyone who reads this book will wish they had their own Fermin in their lives. The book is worth reading for his dialogue alone.