Every few summers or so, I accidentally discover a book that takes over my life. This was one of those summers.
Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind dictated what I did with the first week of my annual pilgrimage to the Balkans. I suppose I’ve been back to the homeland so often now that, having explored everything I could as a child, I’m not actually missing much by basking on my balcony in the horrendous heat, ignoring everything around me. It’s a good job too, because that’s exactly what I did. I stole snippets of time between breakfast and family visits, I read at 3am when back from nights out with my friends, and I even rejected a visit to an outdoor spa in order to have the house and the balconies to myself. (In my defence, I visited that very outdoor spa 9 years ago. That was the summer I discovered Dostoevsky. It was a super windy day, and a few pages of Crime and Punishment were ripped from my grasp and were sent gliding around the pool, attaching themselves to bodies sticky with sun cream. I was distraught.)
I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.
So this was a book club pick and one I didn’t expect too much from. This month’s theme was historical novels (I immediately thought I’d be stuck reading some horrific bodice ripper set in the boring old Tudor era). Luckily, the vote was won by this, a novel set in post civil war Spain, savaged by Franco’s rule and focusing on a boy who discovers a mysterious book in a forgotten library! Ideal summer reading! Still, I did think it might be a cheap thriller with a juicy plot but pretty rubbish writing.
How glad I was to be wrong!
This was exquisite. Zafon is a genius. The writing is delicious, the portrait of Barcelona, the shelves and shelves of books, the darkened alleys. It is over the top in parts, it is dark and twisted, it is so far away from normal life. It is stunning. It is peopled by incredible characters – everyone in this story loves books! Actually, they love books to an unhealthy, life endangering extent.
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.
So here’s the plot. Our hero, Daniel, is a young boy, whose father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to pick any book and take it home. Daniel picks The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Julian Carax. As Daniel devours the book, he decides to look for more novels by Carax, only to find that Carax, and any trace of his other works, has long since disappeared. Daniel then uncovers a dangerous man, Lain Coubert, who also happens to be a character in Carax’s novel, lurking in Barcelona’s shadows. Coubert stalks Daniel with the sole intention finding all of Carax’s novels in order to burn them to ashes.
We then follow Daniel’s journey over his formative adolescent years; we laugh with him as he befriends the wonderful Fermin Romero De Torres, we follow him as he falls in love with dangerous women, and we watch him get further entwined in the Carax mystery, at great personal cost. This is not a fast paced thriller, this is a slow, luxurious unravelling of a mystery through rich, indulgent language.
Most of us have the good or bad fortune of seeing our lives fall apart so slowly we barely notice.
There are so many stories within this novel. That of Daniel and his coming of age, the heart breaking tale of Julian and Penelope, Spain’s own Romeo and Juliet, and the darkness that lies behind Coubert’s fires.
If you are looking for a historical novel, or to learn more about the Spanish Civil War, this isn’t for you. I can’t really say that we learn much about it (other than it was a pretty rubbish time for Spain) or that it plays any larger role than allowing for the existence of the novel’s most unsavoury character, the despicable Inspector Fumero. But the novel is still Zafon’s love letter to Barcelona, and a romantic one at that.
But the greater love letter here is to books themselves. This is pure indulgence for book lovers, a novel peopled by characters who protect books, sell them, write them, burn them and devote their lives to them. I couldn’t have loved it more. I was imprisoned by it.
There are worse prisons than words.