The Shadow of the Wind is easily not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read period. I won’t go as far as to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read – largely because I’m not terribly prone to superlatives – but suffice to say, it’s the kind of book we invented the written word to preserve, giving the author ample time to mull over plot intricacies and characters and turns of phrase, to write them and rewrite them until they hoist the narrative up into vivacious three-dimensional movement like a puppet from its strings.
On the morning Daniel wakes to find he can no longer remember his deceased mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, Daniel encounters a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by the unknown author Julian Carax. Unbeknownst to ten-year-old Daniel as he closes the covers on the story after that first voracious reading, Julian Carax’s final novel becomes the catalyst that sets the rest of his life in motion.
This is a story about ghosts – Julian Carax and the people, alive and dead, who bear his secrets. It’s a story about coincidences, or fate, and the blurry line between them only clear in retrospection. It’s a story about the uncanny intricacies of human connection, how the past is intrinsically interwoven with the present so that forgotten friends can become new enemies. First and foremost, it’s a story about love. Love for a novel that, upon discovering that someone has been seeking out and destroying every copy of Carax’s works since his inexplicable death, sends Daniel on a relentless, lifelong quest to unmask the mysterious author. Love in every conceivable form – true love, false love masquerading as true, tragic love, familial love, and love that drives a person to extremities, filling them up until it’s all they have left and condemning them when it eventually runs out. It’s a story about the disillusionment of realizing that, powerful as it is, love is an inept defense against many of life’s darkest shadows, and that there is too often as much bad in good things as there is good. And yet it is not a bleak or hopeless tale, illustrating as it does the redemptive power of love to hold us together afterward.
The Shadow of the Wind is a perfect example of a whole becoming more than the some of its (impressive) parts. It’s part mystery, part historical fiction, part portrait of a city (Barcelona emerging from the wreckage of the World Wars hot on the heels of the Spanish Civil War), and part love story. Zafón’s writing is poetic without being longwinded, powerful without being overbearing. His characterization leaves little room for categorization – in the course of the novel, you find yourself pitying and empathizing with villains, questioning and reproaching protagonists. He imparts wisdom – disguised as fathers, sons, and old friends, the institutionalized and the demoralized – without being heavy-handed, and executes breathtaking (literally - I gasped audibly several times while reading) action scenes and plot twists without a shred of melodrama. Daniel’s investigation intertwines the lives and fates of himself and Carax to the point where it becomes hard to discern deft parallelism from outright confluence of identity. Dissected, The Shadow of the Wind is all these things. Savored and digested, it is more.
The Shadow of the Wind is a novel so multi-faceted that in the course of reading it I experienced three sentiments somewhat rare to me: Before I had even finished it the first time through, I wanted to start rereading it so as to fully absorb and appreciate its every nuance; somewhere around the halfway point it had already made in onto my shortlist of awe-inducing books; and, like Daniel for Julian Carax, I was bent on tracking down more of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s work. All three were dangerous conclusions to make before the denouement – which so often disappoints, even in the best of books – but I needn’t have wasted a moment’s worry. Closing The Shadow of the Wind and setting it down in my lap, I actually had to inhale deeply to catch my breath.