A literary masterpiece about the power of a literary masterpiece
It’s very rare that I reread a book. This is only the second time in my adult life (the first of course being my favourite book, Norwegian Wood). I loved The Shadow of the Wind the first time I read it and it’s often my go-to recommendation to people as it’s as entertaining as it is brilliant. It’s a reasonably long book and an “epic” in the true sense of the word, with a scope that would rival a novel by Victor Hugo (who makes an appearance of sorts) or Dickens. Yet Zafon has an incredible power of carrying the reader along – you never get lost, confused or bored – only drawn deeper into the labyrinth.
When I recommended it to my girlfriend last year I was dismayed to realise that, while I could remember “scenes”, I actually couldn’t remember any of the details of the plot. Ironic, for a book with the tagline “Once opened, never forgotten.” Facing a long plane journey (remember when we could still fly places?), I decided this was a novel worthy of revisit.
It begins with a young boy named Daniel discovering a novel entitled The Shadow of the Wind in Barcelona’s mythical Cemetery of Lost Books. He quickly becomes ensnared in the mystery of its tragic author, and follows a breadcrumb trail of doomed romances, broken friendships, and bitter rivalries, in the pursuit of resolution.
Below the surface layer of an intricate, well plotted and shocking thriller – that packs more than one surprise – this is a novel of depth. Set over the course of the Spanish Civil War and into Franco’s Spain, it is a story about a national conflict and the secrets and pain it inflicts upon generations. It is also a story about Barcelona, the city that bore the scars and memories of the war.
But mostly (and perhaps unsurprisingly for a book that begins in a place called The Cemetery of Lost Books) it is about the power of literature and the joy of reading – how a novel can mean something personal to the reader and have an impact on their life. Sometimes this message is delivered not-so-subtly. It’s no accident, for example, that the protagonist is raised in a book shop, while the antagonist despises reading. Then there are beautiful passages like this:
“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is an mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all of our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”
It is a stroke of good fortune that this novel is as captivating and touching as the fictional Shadow of the Wind featured in the story. Then again, maybe fortune has nothing to do with it. Maybe someone who loves literature as much as Zafon clearly does – and is audacious enough to write a book about reading a masterpiece – could only have created one himself. It certainly reads as if Zafon has read the fictional Shadow of the Wind himself and somehow unlocked from it the secrets to beautiful writing.
The colours came back to me as I read The Shadow of the Wind, the connections were re-made, the pictures became clearer in my head, and I once again finished the novel in awe of how well it ties together with absolutely no sign of spare thread. I’ll continue to recommend this book to whoever will listen.
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