I've owned this book since it's publication in 2004. The receipt, which I found midway through, says I bought the book at a price that you can't purchase a new hardback book for today. I've moved from Champaign-Urbana to Atlanta and moved three times within the metro area; taking this book with me each time, never once having cracked it open until a few days ago. Considering what it cost and what I should have been spending my money on in graduate school on top the mileage this book has seen I had some heavy expectations when I started reading. I've been avoiding this book, saving it, for right now: a time when I'm kinda over reading and struggling to find anything to hold my attention or that I find rewarding enough to stay with. The phrase 'worth the wait' isn't applicable to this situation as I hadn't truly been anticipating reading the book nonetheless I'm glad I had this on hand at this time as it seemed to be just what I needed.
So what do you say about a book that has been fawned over and an industry darling for so many years? That's it's really good and I highly recommend it? There ain't much I can contribute that will be worth a damn at this time but here goes...
The story takes place in Barcelona in the middle of the twentieth century and deals with five very different secondary school friends and how their lives diverge and come back together. One becomes an infamous police officer, one a priest, one a prodigal pauper, one a spendthrift philanthropist and the last a starving artist in Paris (which we are informed is the last location on earth where it is still fashionable to be such a thing). As a young boy Daniel Sempere's father takes him to the cemetery of forgotten books, which is exactly what it sounds like (and if you're a book nerd you're dying to go there as well). There, in the labyrinth of ever shifting book shelves, Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind, the last known surviving copy, as his burden; his responsibly to take care of. The book is the work of super obscure author Julián Carax whose books have been acquired and subsequently purged by fire since their publication.
Daniel reads the book and falls in love with it and has to learn more about it's author and seeks to find his other published works. His obsession with the book and it's author attracts a lot of attention: from the police, book antiquarians, shady figures threatening him in the dark, and leads to a mystery concerning Carax's life and those closest to him. The plot is fabulous and has a bit of everything in it from action to love story, mystery and intrigue but it's the author's use of language, imagery and metaphor in particular, that will stay with you the most. While Zafón's prose is beautiful, it almost has to be considering how relentlessly mean he is to his characters. I'm not sure I've ever seen an author make their characters suffer so much without crossing the lines of melodrama. The quality of his prose is the balance: even when horrible things continue to happen that further endear the reader to the novel's characters the way things are depicted and expressed help smooth over the reality of the situation.
Zafón works intimately with a lot of characters, seeing that almost none of them fall into the 'secondary' status, and weaves their lives together with new layers and mystery at every turn of the page. Daniel, is really nothing more than a vehicle of discovery for past events and the catalyst in exposing turns of events. While he is the narrator I'm not sure he's the main character, but he is the only one who could relate the story as I don't think readers would want to get so close as first-person narration--inside the head--with any other characters.
The mystery takes years to unfold while we watch Daniel (who isn't the brightest kid on the block) attempt to grow up. The story within a story structure works well and the two being told parallel each other at times. There is enough tension on each page to ensure near impossibility in walking away from this book. There is also, perhaps, the best 'side-kick' I've ever encounter in a book in the person Fermín Romero de Torres who's humor never feels forced and is always welcome considering the horrors that Daniel discovers.
Pick a genre and this book will fit there. I wouldn't say it's for everyone, it is definitely a book for people who like books, and who really enjoy reading. I had some questions when I was done, and there were perhaps one or two characters who's presence I couldn't justify, but if ever a book deserves a round of applause and pat on the back for an ambitious narrative and intricate plotting that succeeds on so many levels, this would be it.
I'm kinda sad that I read The Shadow of the Wind, because now, next time I'm in a funk I won't have a similar 'go to' book.