Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Review - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafon
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 2001
Format: Paperback, 487 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

There is a secret organization that lovingly cares for and protects rare and old books. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has a tradition, that when you are first brought to the labyrinthine structure you must pick one book among the thousand of thousands and protect it for life. When young Daniel Sempere is taken there by his father he picks up a book by Julián Carax called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel devours the book from cover to cover and has a fire burning inside him to know more about Julián Carax. But there are no other books by Julián Carax anymore. A man who has taken his moniker from the devil in Carax's book, Laín Coubert, has slowly been finding every copy of all Carax's titles and burning them. Daniel, along with his sidekick Fermín, start to unravel the mysterious life of Julián Carax and why anyone would want to remove his literary oeuvre from history. It is a journey that is dangerous and dark, with a twisted secret at the center of it.

Ever since I first watched The Neverending Story I thought how wonderful it would be to find a book that was truly magical. To wander into a shop filled with shelves and shelves of stories and have one call out to me and ask me to be the bearer of it's secrets. I think this is a dream that all bibliophiles hold deep in their hearts, that there is a story out there just for them and it will change the course of their lives. It seemed to me that Daniel Sempere, much like Bastian before him, had inadvertently stumbled into this dream. Devouring this book over the course of a few short days I realized that not every dream is satisfactory, and in the hands of the wrong author, can be dull, predictable, and at times insipid. And I would like it noted I devoured this book because I had a book club meeting fast approaching and it had nothing to do with the book itself. And to all those people who lauded this book I seriously want to ask you why!?!

Firstly, let's talk about incest. This has become, in recent years, the most overused trope I can possibly think of. I mean they even used it on a CW show! If a trope has trickled all the way down to be acceptable by the brainless teenagers who actually watch this station then it's time to get a new trope. From Flowers in the Attic to A Game of Thrones, seriously, is this supposed to shock us anymore? Sure, once it was a great taboo, and in actuality, it still is, but fictionally? Nope. To have the big reveal of what destroyed Julian Carax's life was his love of Penélope Aldaya, whom he didn't know was his sister, was laughable. All this build up, all these leads that Daniel Sempere searched and hunted through all the streets of Barcelona to come to this? Oh please. It's not like they knew they were siblings. Sigh, what some people find as a shocking reveal can be shockingly flat.

The predictability of The Shadow of the Wind might just be the biggest flaw. I saw the incest coming a mile off, just one scene with Penélope's father and Julian's mother and that was that. Of course it takes the characters hundreds of pages to get to this reveal which leads to my other main gripe, the lack of forward momentum. You'd think that a man hunting you down through the streets to destroy a book you are bound to protect all while trying to find out his reasoning would be a headlong rush with adrenaline pounding in your veins. You'd be wrong. It plods and limps through the streets of Barcelona occasionally even going back on its self to retell things that were boring the first time. Oh, and the stupidity of the characters! Just wow. The height of this is when Nuria Monfort tells her side of the story, which was basically her retelling the whole book from her point of view! Almost a hundred pages of her being repetitive. Also, what really annoyed me, she supposedly wrote this all out by hand when what was her job? A secretary who could type really fast! And what did Daniel mention seeing in her apartment the first time he was there? A typewriter! Oh, for fucks sack. They all deserved to die.

But let's move to the bigger picture now. At the time directly preceding the actions of Daniel Sempere the Spanish Civil War happened. Yeah, the war mentioned so subtly you could miss it wasn't World War II, because Spain remained neutral during that specific war. And despite what Wikipedia might try to convince you, the war is just the subtlest of afterthoughts and is in no way as important as it should have been to the narrative. I'm not sure if this omission to not discuss the Spanish Civil War was accidental or on purpose. The book was written by a Spanish author so maybe he just assumed that this backdrop was common knowledge. Well, it isn't. A good editor when bringing this book to market in the US should have asked for something more to be slipped in, but then again, I don't really think it was well translated and well, in the end, I really didn't care.

What was interesting though was the discussion this book brought about in my book club as to what defines a book as Gothic. Luckily The Guardian has recently come out with a nice infographic to help you decide, Gothic or Not it. The villain could have been scarier, but the fact that he destroyed things by fire, that could be considered Gothic. The hero had a family AND a sidekick, this is definitely NOT Gothic. Was there spooky locations that might just be haunted... not really. It takes place in slightly olden days in a foreign country, so it's got that. There's snow and some rain and fog, but overall the weather isn't as oppressive as it should be. Overall, it didn't feel Gothic. Because to me, Gothic is a feeling more then anything else. A spookiness you feel in your bones that makes you keep reading late into the night out of sheer terror for what will happen to the hero or heroine next as they are cut off from the world and facing the horrors on their own. In other words, if you actually want Gothic go read Rebecca or The Monk and stay clear of The Shadow of the Wind.


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