Friday, August 8, 2008

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated by: Lucia Graves
Phoenix (Orion Books), 2004
506 pages

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but the cover for the US paperback version of The Shadow of the Wind was so ugly, it gave me a migraine to look at it. Even though it was a bestseller a few years ago; even though I read the great reviews on Amazon.com and other places; well, I just couldn't get past the cover. Someone handed me the prettier European version recently, and I was able to get past my graphic nausea. And I discovered one of the best books I've ever read. Ever.

In fact, it's very challenging to write this review, because nothing I write will express how much I love this book. First, it's beautifully written. OK, maybe I should say beautifully translated, since it was translated from Spanish. Whatever the case, it's just a joy to read. The author and/or the translator have an incredible grasp of language. Really, in terms of pure writing, I can't think of anything I've read in a long time that was this good.

The plot - at least on the surface - is a simple one. A young boy named Daniel, son of a widowed bookseller, is taken by his father to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books to select a book that he will be "responsible for" forever. The book he chooses - called The Shadow of the Wind -is a great read, but no one seems to know anything about the author, Julian Carax. Suddenly, clues begin appearing, and Daniel becomes obsessed with learning more about Julian. Several people take an interest in the book - some want to buy it, others want to burn it. Daniel is torn between selling it and keeping his promise. There's also a "scary" person who keeps following him . . . does he have evil intentions? The plot thickens as smaller but very important stories are woven in to Daniel's story as he grows older and attempts to solve the mystery that is Julian Carax, while also solving mysteries in his own life.

Most of the story takes place in Barcelona, and much of it takes place in and shortly after the Spanish Civil War. Having visited Barcelona in May (and several of the key locations in the story, such as Montjuic, the Ramblas, Plaza Real, and Plaza Felipe Neri), it was easy for me to visualize these locations - which made it more meaningful. I remember seeing the pocks in the stone walls of the buildings at Plaza Felipe Neri - wounds left by the guns of war.

The Shadow of the Wind has some wonderful characters. My favorite is Fermin, the homeless man who Daniel and his father remove from the streets and make a part of their family. He's the classic example of the survivor - someone who's been through hell, but somehow made it, probably because of his endearing personality and sense of humor.

There are underlying themes in the book about forgiveness and redemption that will really make you think. In fact, it's interesting to me that although Daniel and his father often admit to being atheists, they actually display more Christianlike behaviors than some the book's so-called Christians. This is just one of several elements in The Shadow of the Wind that could be analyzed, if I had more time to write this review! But I don't!

The Shadow of the Wind is a mystery. It's historical fiction. It's action/adventure. It's fantasy. It's a love story (several love stories, actually.) It's everything. And you should read it!

Rating: 5 stars (Yes! Really!)