Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind has been one of my favorite books since it arrived on my doorstep 4 years ago. This book has something for everyone: romance, revenge, mystery, action, and spectacular plot twists. In the words of Stephen King:

If you thought the true gothic novel died with the nineteenth century, this will change your mind. [The Shadow of the Wind] is the real deal, a novel full of cheesy splendor and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots…. This is one gorgeous read.

And the subplots are fantastic. I recently criticized A Game of Thrones for its numerous subplots, but Zafón keeps a tighter grip on his story. The core of the story is simple: Daniel Sempere is the son of a bookseller in Barcelona, 1945. After discovering a book by Julián Carax, he tries to find the author’s other works, but instead learns that someone has been tracking down his writings, book by book, and burning them. Though Daniel’s copy of The Shadow of the Wind may be the last, this story does not sink to a game of keep-away with Daniel running around Barcelona a la Robert Langdon with a book under his arm. The book, and Daniel’s curiosity in Carax, are used to pry up other, more interesting secrets. Though there are many characters and backgrounds, they all come together. For its complexity, the story and pace are remarkably controlled; the characters are vivid, and the plot twists are brilliant. Stephen King’s description of “cheesy splendor” is spot on in the best way.

This is a book to sweep up a reader and dazzle them with epiphanies. With soap operas, I’d roll my eyes when secret relationships came out, when unexpected family ties were revealed, or when people returned from the dead. But here, these devices actually work. (No, really.)

When Daniel finds the copy of Julian Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind:

I had never heard of the title or the author, but I didn’t care. The decision had been taken. I pulled the volume down with great care and leafed through the pages, letting them flutter. Once liberated from its prison on the shelf, the book shed a cloud of golden dust. Pleased with my choice, I tucked it under my arm and retraced my steps through the labyrinth with a smile on my lips. Perhaps the bewitching atmosphere of the place had got the better of me, but I felt sure that The Shadow of the Wind had been waiting for me there for years, probably since before I was born. (7)

This is the sort of thing that usually elicits an eyeroll from me—”waiting for me there . . . probably since before I was born”—because it’s self-important and overstuffed with meaning. But within Zafón’s carefully constructed world, Daniel’s sentiment doesn’t feel overwrought. Unlike many other authors who use such heavy foreshadowing, Zafón delivers. If you’re going to foreshadow a big, sweeping adventure, you need to come through on the promise. Because Zafón is holding several aces, this overblown way of speaking isn’t merely irksome; it builds the mood and excites the reader.

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0) It’s funny; it’s romantic; it’s heartbreaking. In the hands of any other writer (with any other translator), this book would be a mess. As is, it’s fantastic. If this was a movie, I’d use the cliché: “The most fun I’ve had in theaters this year”, but I’m not sure of the book equivalent.

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