This is one those books that gets passed around via word of mouth recommendations. I picked it up just due to the wide variety of friends who, with widely varying tastes, all raved about how great this book was. So I came to it with high expectations, but almost as much as I expected it to be good, I was also expecting to be disappointed, thinking that nothing could match the hype.
The story kicks off in a cracking way. We are introduced to our main protagonist and the first person narrator of the story, Daniel, who is taken by his father to a mysterious place known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he picks up a copy of a hitherto unknown work called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Fascinated by the story, he takes the story to a book merchant, who offers Daniel a huge sum of money for the book. But Daniel is more interested in the story and of the story of the author behind it.
As the story develops, a murky figure lurks in the shadows of the streets of Franco’s Barcelona, seemingly intent on destroying all the works of Carax. So as Daniel gets a little older, he sets off in search of the full story of Julian Carax, trying to discover who he was and what fate befell him. As Daniel talks to a number of people who had dealings with Carax, his family or his friends, much of the main narrative is told in flashback format, and as Carax’s story is revealed, it shows a worrying parallel with the events happening in Daniel’s life. Pursuing the memory of an obscure, it seems, is not a safe hobby. As events draw themselves to a conclusion, the lives of Daniel and Julian seem to be spiralling towards each other into an inevitable conclusion.
After a captivating opening, in which Zafon makes it apparent that this book is a love letter to the novel. He peppers the reader with references and nods to various other works of literature for which Zafon has a clear affection. After this, though, the book does fall into a bit of a lull. The essential plot device he uses is for two friends to go and talk to someone who sheds a little more light on the mystery before something bad happens to one or both of the two friends. This pattern is repeated multiple times and does lead to a little frustration on the part of the reader. The resolution of the mystery (which is actually fairly predictable from about page 40) is also a little disappointing, as it comes from a deus ex machina. The climax which comes after is also a little predictable.
That said, this is still a fun book to read, with some great aphorisms dotting the landscape and some wonderfully poetic descriptions of the landscape of Barcelona during and just after the Spanish Civil War.