Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind, Phoenix, 2004, translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves.
This story had an opening guaranteed to capture the imagination of many bibliophile readers. It describes the main character, Daniel, being taken at the age of ten to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he can take one book and become responsible for ensuring its survival. In a way, this is a cheap trick, as most of the story is not about books as such, but about people and relationships.
Daniel takes a book and the rest of the tale is about his attempts to find out more about its author, Julian, who, like him, grew up in Barcelona. He also wants to learn why someone has been destroying all the copies of Julian's books. This search takes many years, and the evidence about the author's youth gradually forms a clearer picture, while at the same time, aspects of Daniel's life start to mirror Julian's early experiences.
The language is a balanced blend of everyday descriptions and more poetic passages, and it doesn't feel translated. It was a pleasure to read, and I wish more translated books met this standard.
The story of Julian's life, as discovered by Daniel, seems rather melodramatic, as do the events surrounding Daniel's journey of discovery. Without giving too much away, the relationships between Julian and his school friends determine the course of his future. This is a common theme in literature, but in real life I don't think many people have this experience. One of the revelations about Julian's identity, which should have been shocking, was very obvious to me from an early stage in the novel. Maybe less experienced readers would be more surprised, but to me this predictable discovery seemed rather unoriginal. In fact, much of the plot was based on such common themes that it was only the way they were presented, rather than the ideas themselves, that made it worth reading.
One weakness of the novel is that so many sections are reports on Julian's past told to Daniel by other characters he meets. Sadly, these sections are all written in the same style, and rarely reflect the character narrating them (although as can be expected, the discoveries build up the full picture in stages). Also, the later sections seem to assume that the narrator knows exactly how much Daniel has discovered. This seems rather contrived. In a more realistic story, the discoveries would be less orderly, and the narrations would have more overlap, contradiction, and a greater variety of voices.
Another major fault, to me, was that Chapter 35 ends with the sentence "In seven days' time, I would be dead", and then the story continues mentioning Daniel's awareness, with hindsight, that these were the last days of his life. This is something writers are specifically taught not to do - the first-person narrator must be alive when the story is told, and this seems a cheap trick to keep the reader engaged in the danger of Daniel's search. If by midway through the book the reader didn't realize the danger and didn't identify with Daniel enough, I doubt that this sort of device would suddenly change any reader's mind. Anyway, the ending was unsatisfying, since Daniel was shot and was "dead" for a few seconds, but then "miraculously" recovered and got his happy, Hollywood-style end. I found this frustrating on two levels - first, all the talk about him dying was a red herring, and second, while not being dead allowed the first-person narrative to be explained better, the happy end was in contrast to the tone of the rest of the story and some of the tragic events.
Like many stories, this was a tale of Daniel's maturation over several years. His obsession with the book he discovered and its author had many consequences, some tragic, others possibly hinting at a compensating redemption. It is hard to evaluate the morality of Daniel's actions, how much was his responsibility, or what he could have done differently.
This book might be better suited to less pedantic readers who are less likely to find the criticisms I expressed here upsetting, and those who like tales of romance and melodrama.