I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon for the first time about 5 years ago for one of my book groups. I didn’t love it and was surprised by how much other group members enjoyed it. Since then, I have heard so many rave reviews and so many people who rate it as one of their favorite books that I decided to give it another try last month when my neighborhood book group chose it. I’m glad I gave it a second chance because I really enjoyed the very bookish, clever, story-within-a-story this time.
The novel begins in Barcelona in 1945 when 10-year old Daniel is taken by his father, a bookseller, to a mysterious place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He tells Daniel that the place is a secret and allows him to choose one book from among its thousands and thousands of shelves in twisting galleries. Daniel chooses a book at random that will end up changing his life dramatically. It’s a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by an obscure author named Julian Carax. That night, Daniel compulsively reads the compelling novel from beginning to end, with the rapture that any book-lover will recognize.
Daniel’s father has never heard of the book or author before, so he introduces Daniel to a fellow bookseller who is quite impressed by Daniel’s find. Daniel can tell that it’s a rare and valuable book and knows that he must protect it and keep it close. From there, the story slowly unfolds, adding new characters and new, unexpected aspects to the story. In Daniel’s words, as he is reading his own The Shadow of the Wind:
As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections.
In the first of many parallels between the real novel I read and the fictional novel at the center of the story, its complex plot unfolds in much the same way.
Daniel’s story continues in the 1940’s, as he feels compelled to investigate the novel and its mysterious author, while it becomes clear that someone wants to destroy it. At the same time, the reader also begins to learn of Julian Carax’s (the author) own tragic life story years earlier, beginning when he was a child much like Daniel in Barcelona. History is woven in with the Spanish Civil War and the repercussions of that which continue to Daniel’s time.
It’s all a deliciously convoluted story within a story within a story, filled with mystery and suspense, romance, history, and drama. For mystery lovers, there is plenty here to sink your teeth into, as Daniel investigates what became of Julian Carax and his childhood friends and who wants to destroy the author’s works, with lots of red herrings along the way to keep things interesting. All of this is set against the backdrop of Barcelona, described with rich language in a way that makes you feel as if you are right there with Daniel, walking its twisty streets.
The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books where a lot of different threads all eventually come together, like a rich tapestry whose pattern you can’t discern while it’s being woven. I like clever books like that, and I came to care about Daniel and his friends. It’s a beautifully written, compelling story set in a place and time that the author brings fully to life on the page, a book that is perfect for book lovers.
486 pages, Penguin Books