Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Shadow of the Wind

Originally written in Spanish and a European best-seller after it was published in 2001, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's book, Shadow of the Wind, was translated into English in 2004 and has become a best-seller in the United States as well.

In addition to its commercial success, I have only heard good things about this book from readers I respect. With that kind of eager anticipation, I delved into this book, finishing it in two days.

Daniel Sempere and his father own a rare bookstore set in post Spanish Civil War Barcelona, where they have lived alone together after his mother died in his early youth. When Daniel is ten years-old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, to choose a novel in its midst to take care of and insure against being lost forever. Daniel chooses a book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julian Carax. He begins reading his new treasure that very night and, completely engrossed, finishes it by the next day.

Determined to find more books written by Carax, Daniel soon learns that the book and its author are surrounded by shadows. For years, an unknown person identifying himself as a character in Carax's book, Lain Coubert, whose name means "The Devil", has been collecting all of Carax's books wherever they are and burning them. When he learns of Daniel's ownership and subsequent inquiries, he corners Daniel on the streets of Barcelona and warns him of what will happen if he doesn't hand over his copy of The Shadow of the Wind. To preserve the endangered book, he once again hides it in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and continues his quest to find out what happened to Carax.

The language throughout the entire novel is truly beautiful. I remember at one point, early in the novel, the author casually using the word "nib" in place of pen and thinking, "This is a translation?" The prose can be really fancy at times, but as the characters' lives are surrounded by great books, it doesn't seem out of place or pompous to use these less familiar words.

The plot is complicated and well developed. I honestly didn't know who the bad guy burning all the books was until the guy I thought it was was killed. The pace fantastically pulsed and the mixture of romance, suspense and history were all tastefully woven together.

With that gushing aside, I found myself a little disappointed with this book. I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, but I know it was more than The Shadow of the Wind offered. I fear my disappointment is a result of the classic case of having too high of expectations.

My main disappointment involves the characters, their motivation and their perspectives. There are many characters throughout the book, past and present day, and there was one I absolutely fell in ove with, Fermin Romero de Torres - Daniel's hilarious, enthusiastic, and unbalanced sidekick. His humor and methods of getting things done gave the story a very necessary comedic lift. Besides Fermin and probably Daniel's father, however, who isn't even very well developed, the rest of the characters had me wondering at their extreme behavior.

It begins with Daniel, at age ten, when he becomes obsessed with beautiful, older and blind Clara, a woman who, thankfully, is not equally infatuated with Daniel. Clara never seems to possess any quality, other than being blind and requiring being read to, that warrants Daniel's unwavering love. I didn't understand his motivation to become so completely romantically devoted to a woman at such a young age and I don't feel like it was explained, either. He simply was. Until he caught her in flagrante delicato with her piano teacher. And then he wasn't.

Almost all of the supporting characters do extreme things or are punished extremely for doing normal things. Every woman who has sex the first time gets pregnant. Every father of said daughters tries to kill the impregnator. Every friend of a boy who falls in love ends up hating his friend. There is just a lot of insane people. It's all very dramatic. Which makes for an interesting story, but not altogether very likely.

There is also some perspective problems. Frequently throughout the story, Daniel unravels Carax's past by listening to Carax's peers recall their memories. Each time, the person remembers things that they could not have known. They weren't there. Looks or words between a couple. Promises made in secret. It happens with Carax's boyhood friend who becomes a priest. It happens again with Penelope's, Carax's love interest, nanny, and again with a woman who worked at the company where Carax's books were published. By the end, this flagrant abuse of recollection bothered me. As interesting as Daniel's first person narrative was, if more information was needed to fill in the holes, an omnipresent third person narrative seems more honest and appropriate.

Sadly, this is what I do when books fail to meet their expectations. The imperfections glare at me and I mention them - even when a book is really good. And this book is really good. It just fell short of its hype.

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