Wednesday, November 20, 2013

CBR V Review #43: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.” 

The Shadow of the Wind is both the title of this book, and the title of a significant book within the story being told.  Set in Barcelona just after the Spanish Civil War, this book tells two stories: the story of Daniel, a young man obsessed with the life of a mysterious author, and the story of Julian Carax, aforementioned enigmatic author.  Daniel comes across Carax's book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place he is brought to as a right of passage by his father, a bookshop owner.  Daniel adores the book and wants nothing more than to find out more about the author, and to read his other works.  However, much to his dismay, he discovers that someone has been systematically removing and burning every copy of Carax's works over the years.  Even more distressing to Daniel is that the facts of Carax's life are shrouded in mystery - a mystery he intends to solve, despite the dire consequences.

The mystery behind Carax is something that is perhaps better left undiscovered, as the stakes get higher and danger increases.  Daniel discovers plenty about himself as he looks for the truth about Carax, and his development is even more interesting than the unraveling of secrets in Carax's story.  The search for truth connects Daniel to a cast of great characters who help him along the way.  I'll leave plot summary there, since mysteries are much better left to discovery of the reader, despite the lessons Daniel learns to the contrary.

I love the characters in this.  Fermin, a friend of Daniel's who works in the bookshop with him and his father, in particular is a favorite.  He is so full of life despite what the world has done to him.  He brings most of the levity to the story, which is much needed around the heaviness of Carax's past horrors and Daniel's present danger.  Any time I knew he was involved in a scene, I expected to enjoy it, and was never really let down in that regard.  I love Daniel as well, which is great since he's our protagonist.  He grows up a lot over the course of the novel and in ways I mostly felt were very natural.

My three complaints are structural.  First, after introducing Daniel to the book, there's a bit of a side story about a friend who is a book seller with an attractive blind daughter, and shortly after a huge time jump.  This leap around makes it hard to care about anything going on until later, when the story seems to catch up to the point it wants to tell and plows steadily forward.  I don't personally see Clara (the blind daughter) as important - it feels like she's wedged in there to give contrast to Bea when she appears later.

My second objection is the shoehorning in of the bulk of truth about Carax.  After all these pieces keep coming up, almost the entire story of what really happened is spelled out in a letter from a secondary character.  This letter, I kid you not, is whole chapters of the book.  It goes on for dozens of pages, for so long that you forget you are reading a letter.  I don't like that kind of telling versus showing - it felt cheap.  My third complaint rolls into this second, as the letter is the most prominent example of another device I dislike - the shifting narrator.  For example, as this one character is outlining what happened to another character, the second character's POV takes over in a way that makes absolutely no sense.  There's no way for the character writing the letter to know it, and having it feature in the letter like that is illogical, even if the psychology is interesting.

Overall, a solid book with a good story and great characters, written in a way that needs more polish.

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