Barcelona, 1945 - Just after the war a boy named Daniel awakes one day to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child Daniel’s widowed father initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel so loves the book he selects, a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Before Daniel knows it, his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love. Before long he realizes that his search for the truth about Julián Carax will bring great suffering to him and those closest to him but there is no turning back.
The first time I heard about The Shadow of the Wind was on BBC World Book Club and it intrigued me immediately. The idea of a book stirring up such trouble and a terrible mystery in the middle of it proved irresistible so imagine my surprise when I discovered the book already waiting its turn on my bookshelf. Not sure when I got it, or where, but I was glad to see it there nonetheless.
The story gripped me from the very first pages, which was easy to do with evocative writing and characters depicted so well that they seemed to be real people trapped in the pages of the novel. They were far from perfect, riddled with weaknesses in fact, but that only made their strengths stand out that much more. The same goes for the setting - the world Zafon created, or portrayed, isn't pretty. There is pain and horror at every turn, some of the things that happened made me wonder why hasn't anyone stopped the perpetrators, why the terrible things were allowed to continue. But that's life, I suppose, and I applaud the author for giving them a place in this story and in this way providing a contrast for the decency and kindness.
There are parts of the book that might create an impression that supernatural forces are at play but I was pleased to discover that all events had a very reasonable explanation and were firmly grounded in facts and people's actions. If they weren't it really would've been too much - in Zafon's post-war Barcelona even things that had a perfectly reasonable explanation seemed fantastical at times.
My favorite thing about this novel was how everything and everyone seemed to be connected, down to the most seemingly insignificant detail. All the threads of the tangled knot that is the mystery of Julián Carax and his life eventually were revealed to be part of one whole and discovering the connections was simply exhilarating. The runner-up favorite thing was seeing the parallels and similarities between Daniel and Julián and their lives. It really seemed as though Daniel was always meant to be the one to find out the truth and everything and everyone simply waited for him to be ready to do it.
I enjoyed this novel from the first till the last page and even the few inconsistencies that seemed to jump out at me didn't spoil it. It was easy to see that some things were done for dramatic effect, and one element of the mystery was obvious to me since I've seen quite a bit of it in Latin American telenovelas, but all that was generously compensated for when the identity of the person who was destroying Carax's books was revealed. If it was anyone else I probably would've felt cheated so I'll forgive the author the little shortcomings and will recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, great writing, unique characters and above all a book that's difficult to put down.