THE PLOT: ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a gothic mystery set in 1945. The story opens in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, when a ten-year-old boy visits the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’. The boy is allowed to choose one book and selects, unbeknownst to him, the last copy of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by an enigmatic author Julián Carax. As the boy grows up, several people attempt to take the book from him – by fair means or foul – until he is prompted to discover the truth about Julián Carax, and solve the mystery of his missing books.
RATING: Wow, this book is packed full of genres, themes and subplots, so it’s hard to pick them apart. The core of the book is wonderful – a gorgeous mystery full of shadowy figures set against the cruel and foreboding backdrop of Franco’s Spain. It’s a metatheatrical rumination on the nature of writing and storytelling, constantly juxtaposing itself with famous books and writers. However, sometimes this turns it into a farce, making fun of the traditional mystery novel with unexpected “comedy” and repetitive or unrealistic devices to wrap up the mystery. Finally, a large section of the book dives into the young boy’s coming of age and sexual awakening, which is rather early on and so confuses the reader as to whether they’re going to get the mystery novel they paid for. So, as I said, this book has a lot going on, which is why I’m giving it three and a half stars.
I feel like the quote from Stephen King on the cover says it best: “… a novel full of cheesy splendour and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots…”
GOOD BITS: At first, I struggled to get through this book and debated whether to stop reading it altogether. However, the last 200 pages were addictive and I loved the way the story evolved. It felt like the author (and main character) remembered he needed to stop sexualizing women and focus on solving the mystery, so the book shifted gears and provided us with answers and revelations. Although I guessed one twist, there were plenty more to keep me shocked and I genuinely felt both scared and satisfied.
The setting is undoubtedly this novel’s strength as the backdrop of the Fascist regime in Spain leaves you feeling uneasy about every character. It’s a world where you can’t trust the authorities and people disappear – perfect for a mystery. But importantly the author seeded in important historical facts to evoke the period with little details and make us think about why this regime isn’t taught about and exposed in the same way as other devastating 20th Century leaders.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The depiction of women in this book really stood out to me, and for all of the wrong reasons. The author seems to fixate on “ladies” who are pale, thin and lose their virginity at seventeen, in a way that feels unnecessary and uncomfortable. Given that this book was published (in English – translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves) in 2004, and set in 1945, I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, but the excessive depictions of women’s breasts and continual “jokes” about how women are different to men felt overbearing. In addition to this, there are some problematic depictions of black women and a gay drag queen that don’t pass 2021 standards. Obviously, I’m not calling to “cancel” the author, but you might want to avoid this book if these may offend you.
On top of this, I felt that the subplots were too convoluted. Even though the author brought it all together well and the storylines deliberately mirrored each other, the confusing subplots made the middle of the book a real slog – you have to read this with pure faith that it’ll get better. And again, even though they worked, the devices to solve the mystery felt a little contrived. There was a pattern of the boy discovering a person, going to see them, them being reluctant to talk but then launching into a monologue about the mystery, which was repetitive. And then there were some convenient letters that contained details that the person writing them wouldn’t have necessarily known, but helped to tie up the mystery.
OVERALL: What a long review for an overcomplicated but interesting book! And honestly, after all that I don’t know whether you should read it… On the whole, I’d recommend it to fans of Pan’s Labyrinth and Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith. This book is a product of its time – a bit too long, a bit too clever with the multiple genres, and a bit offensive for our modern sensibilities. However, I enjoyed it in the end and if you’re looking for a creepy mystery with a wonderful historical setting, this could be for you.