I had no idea what to expect when I picked up The Shadow of the Wind (2001), number 56 on the BBC book list, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I mentioned to my sister that I had started reading it, and she had an enthusiastic response. I realized then that I was in for a treat with this book.
And despite its corniness and lack of cohesive plot at times, the book was a treat. It was just what I needed to help pull me out of a reading rut I’ve been experiencing for the last few months. The book is a fast-paced literary thriller, one that features a mysterious villain, a vanished author, romance, and intrigue.
Daniel is a young boy in Barcelona, Spain, whose father takes him to the “cemetery of forgotten books.” The keeper of that cemetery tells us: “in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend” (p. 6). Daniel discovers a novel called The Shadow of the Wind, and he reads it quickly, wanting more from the author, Julián Carax. Daniel learns, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you” (p. 209). However, he soon learns that Carax’s books are rare, and that somebody has been finding all copies and burning them.
Of course, Daniel must investigate, amid his own young romance and family troubles. As he ventures further into the mystery, the police try to stop him, and he delves into the history and childhood of Carax. We find mysteries and feuds from school days, and all of it takes place at one of the old abandoned mansions in town. The past and the present collide in this old house, and Daniel nearly loses his life.
It is all clichéd, but I enjoyed it. The book reminded me of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, in which authors and literature and romance make a mysterious and lethal combination. We all know in real life that our bookish personalities and our favorite authors are much less exciting, but novels are the right place to fantasize about the ways in which books and their creators could be the subject of espionage, intrigue, and murder. We want to believe that what we find so interesting and exciting could truly be just that in “real” life. Zafón’s novel seems to be a symptom of that, and I suspect that we readers don’t mind. I’d rather read a thriller about forgotten books and a mysterious author, than about former FBI agents and their international adventures.
Despite the thriller aspects of this novel, it has insight into human nature, as all great books do. The comical character and Daniel’s older sidekick in this adventure, Fermín, explains, “Evil presupposes a moral decision, intention, and some forethought. A moron or a lout, however, doesn’t stop to think or reason. He acts on instinct, like a stable animal, convinced that he’s doing good, that he’s always right, and sanctimoniously proud to go around [messing] up . . . anyone he perceives to be different from himself, be it because of skin color, creed, language, nationality” (p. 155).
I enjoyed this book. It isn’t necessarily a favorite, but it was fun. I needed something fun, and I needed to feel the thrill of turning a page or starting a new chapter because I had been left hanging. Such books, while less intellectually demanding, are healing when we need to remember that books are to be enjoyed instead of devoured. I needed to be reminded why I love reading: for the pleasure of it, not for note-taking or for writing an insightful blog post. I need to read to lose myself.