The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the Gothic romance genre clichés, this was still so very captivating in mood and setting. An enduringly popular book both in the original Spanish and in its translated version, this is one of those popular thrillers which are deep in characters and setting to qualify as a literary success too. The initial construct itself is intriguing and any book lover’s fantasy – “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” – a place where books are stocked up and kept, which may otherwise have long gone out of circulation, their words a drifting mystery of the author which would no longer reach those it were meant to.

So we have the young narrator, Daniel, who, tormented by his sudden realization that he is forgetting his deceased mother’s face, is taken by his father to the mysterious library, and asked to choose a book. This book will own its chooser, as it is the duty of the chooser to make sure it is available for eternity. Thus Daniel chooses a book, The Shadow of the Wind, by an author he and most others have never heard of, Julian Carax, and his life is transformed beyond any measure he could have imagined.

For the book he has chosen is no ordinary one. It is one being stalked by a mysterious figure in black, who seeks out copies of it and makes sure it gets burned. But Daniel, in the foolhardy and not yet corrupted influences of youth, is not easily persuaded to give up on a book that has entranced him and encourages him to seek out the fate of its mysterious author. What he stumbles upon is a tale of unending heartache, romance, misfortune and enduring vengeance, while also seeming to have parallels to his own life.

Julian Carax’s story, of a talented author and his flight from his (and Daniel’s) hometown of Barcelona to Paris and his probable return and death in penury, is one of cursed families and the embers they spread around which consume the lives of those even fleetingly associated with them. At the same time, Daniel sees his own budding young romances take off and experience similar heartaches. However, on one of these unfortunate interludes, he comes across a street dweller called Fermin, who later becomes an integral part of the story and Daniel’s partner in crime. And who is the mysterious stranger after him to burn his copy of the book?

This is a deliciously creepy and spooky story at times, without ever delving into cheap thrills. Yes, the female characters do seem templates of other heroines we see, and Fermin does seem too good a character to realistically just come across by chance, but minor worries. Because the writing, and the loving descriptions of Barcelona in a time of strife for the city (right after the fall of the city and rebels taking over), tide over these problems. The city under General Franco is brought to life vividly and its architecture and people intricately portrayed, including the feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia the inhabitants must have felt during tumultuous times. And it has some memorable characters. The primary characters of Daniel Sempere and his father apart, we are brought to care about the lives and loves of various others like the irrepressible Fermin, Isaac the librarian and his tragic daughter, and of course – the cast in and around Julian Carax’s life, including a venomous villain going by the name of Fumero and who harbors seemingly timeless venom against the author. Daniel’s coming of age and his heartbreaks are portrayed with an exquisite sense of feeling and sadness which is relatable for the most part. There is a sense of always impending doom and a deep seated sense of melancholy in the different inhabitants of the story which may get wearisome, but personally I felt it caught the mood of the tale and the era perfectly.

Considering this is supposed to be a part of a set of books based in Barcelona, I’m intrigued enough to get my hands on another one of these tales!

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