Daniel was ten when he was taken into a cemetery and told he was allowed to save one soul. His father owned a bookstore packed full of contemporary titles of his 1940's Barcelona, but Daniel's father's real love was the appropriately named "Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a guarded vault filled with a labyrinth of shelves, covered, top to bottom, with volumes wasting away in obscurity. Daniel is told to take one book, read it, and protect its story for the rest of his life.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind seems born of a different time. An ode to its own genre, a love song to itself, the story of a boy who is shown the power of a book, one so powerful that it threatens to destroy everything and everyone he loves. The novel Daniel picks transforms him. Written by a Julian Carax, Daniel goes on a quest to find out more about the author and is surprised to learn that other volumes of his books have been disappearing through the hands of a mysterious stranger determined to burn the last remaining few.
Fans of the classics will find the tale utterly compelling, with its magical interweavings of fate, time, and romance, and Zafón's knack for mapping out every inch of a scene through a liquid flow of words. But despite the completely original story line, more contemporary readers might be turned off by its verbose nature and unplausibility. Prostitutes are sweethearts, homeless men are brilliant heroes, the hatter is mad as, well... a hatter and Barcelona seems conveniently no more than two blocks wide. Characters fall in love faster than you could even... oh wait, they are in love already. And this isn't your average everyday fiction-novel romance. This is the super-one-and-only-the-cosmos-want-us-to-be-together kind of love. Readers might easily get lost in the barrage of characters, and grow weary as Daniel paces the city, fruitless for 100's of sheets of ink.
There is no denying, however, that Zafo;n has a wonderful knack for pushing and pulling his reader's attention. Cliffhanger chapter endings are sprinkled throughout the book, like sweet, sweet chocolate inside a bran muffin. There were times where I was amazed, mesmerized by Zafon's words, but there were times where the story became dull, a tedious trek to make it to the next chapter, partially due to Zafon's chosen protagonist. The character of Daniel is somewhat likable in the first third of the book, a young boy who falls in love with a blind older woman, a woman who falls in love with Daniel reading Carax's words to her. Readers will be drawn to his heartache, his quest to find out about Carax, and his genuinely terrified beating heart as a man covered in burnt skin, smelling of burnt books, quietly stalks him.
Unfortunately as Daniel grows, his character does not, but luckily, Fermín, a homeless man whom Daniel's father hires off the street to work in his bookshop, has enough charisma for the both of them.
An ex-secret agent and unattractive ladies-man, who works his way through the book pinching bottoms and solving mysteries. His depth of character, wit coupled with a tortured past as a prisoner of war, make him one of the main redeeming factors in the story.
The Shadow of the Wind has been a powerful best-seller in Spain for well over a year. The book hits American shelves this month (April 2004). Though the story line itself is compelling enough to send shivers down any book-lovers spine, the execution of the tale is anything but "Americanized". If you are looking for an eloquent tale that is chock-full of true love and mysteries where everything ties up perfectly, then look no further. But the American Best-Seller tradition loves suspenseful thrills, quick action, and "love at first sight" is mocked rather than praised.
Perhaps I am more "American" than I had thought.