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the complete review - fiction
The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
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- Spanish title: La Sombra del Viento
- Translated by Lucia Graves
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B+ : atmospheric if ultimately too fervent bookish suspense
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Zafon's brow is less high than Perez-Reverte's, and his puzzles are less ingenious, but his story is impressively well-rounded. Humour, horror, politics and romance are skilfully deployed, and although the cardinal plot-twists aren't hard to guess, the overall effect is hugely satisfying." - Christopher Tayler, Daily Telegraph
- "The book is written by someone witty and knowing enough to spoof himself while still being able to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. It is also a quasi-Freudian biblio-adventure, looping and twisting through the streets of post-war Barcelona and in among the pages of books, in search of lost fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. (...) He swathes his story in atmospherics: no one is without his wreath of cigarette smoke, no recess without its shadowy figure. Barcelona becomes a place of doors opening into dark interiors of the mind." - The Economist
- "Mêlant roman initiatique et thriller politique, réalisme magique et embardées fantastiques, Zafon sème le vent avec un sacré punch. Et récolte le frisson." - André Clavel, L'Express
- "Diese Éducation sentimentale erzählt Carlos Ruiz Zafon mit mehr Talent als Tempo, wenngleich man rasch den Eindruck gewinnt, die Detektivgeschichte gehöre eher in ein Jugendbuchprogramm. Dennoch ließe man sich durchaus davon unterhalten, wäre da nicht jener ärgerliche großliterarische Gestus, mit dem der Autor uns unentwegt Banalitäten serviert. (...) So vernarrt ist Carlos Ruiz Zafón in seine Figuren, daß ihm die Romanhandlung darüber entgleitet." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "The undoubted flaws in The Shadow of the Wind do, ironically, stem from an overvaluing of words at the expense of things. A trivial yet revealing mannerism is the frequency with which a character reads some book or other deep into the night, enthralled, only for the sun to come up on cue as the last page is reached: the whole universe, it seems, is at the service of the act of reading." - Michael Kerrigan, The Guardian
- "Das klingt kindlich und ein bisschen kitschig, das ist es manchmal auch, aber bei Ruiz Zafon gehorcht der naiv rätselgläubige Blick auf die Wirklichkeit der Erzählperspektive des heranwachsenden Ich-Erzählers Daniel. Der verwandelt das ärmliche Nachkriegsspanien in die mystische Kulisse für seine Entdeckung der (Erwachsenen-)Welt, und es ist eben diese Perspektive, aus der sich Zafons mitreissende Fabulier- und Zitierwut speist." - Albrecht Buschmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "The melodrama and complications of Shadow, expertly translated by Lucia Graves, can approach excess, though it's a pleasurable and exceedingly well-managed excess. We are taken on a wild ride -- for a ride, we may occasionally feel -- that executes its hairpin bends with breathtaking lurches. But there is more to say." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
- "In fact, everything about The Shadow of the Wind is smooth. The language purrs along, while the plot twists and unravels with languid grace (.....) Yet despite these strengths it still feels that there is something missing from this book. The medley of genres (mildly supernatural thriller, against-the-odds love story and period coming-of-age saga) never quite fuses into a satisfying whole." - Robert Colville, The Observer
- "For such a hefty book, The Shadow of the Wind contains very little direct action, and surprisingly few scenes. (...) Zafon's writing is so epic and vague, he fails to engage the reader even when describing real-life events. (...) The combined effect of the foggy setting and soggy writing is of being lost in a swamp." - Jennie Yabroff, San Francisco Chronicle
- "The translation, by Lucia Graves (daughter of Robert), is excellent, mixing formality with poetry, so the rambling prose occasionally sparkles with lovely phrases (.....) The book’s pace is slower than a conventional detective story, but the puzzle is as compelling." - Andrea Mullaney, Scotland on Sunday
- "(W)rapping those concerns up in a thriller and a love story, whose very natures are conventional and straightforward, gives his tale a dramatic tension that so many contemporary novels today seem to lack. This is highly sophisticated, fun reading that keeps you gripped and tests the brain cells all at the same time. What more could you ask for ?" - Amy Mathieson, The Scotsman
- "But what looked like a prelude to an amateur version of Kafka or Borges turns out to be a complex and absorbing detective novel as Daniel, obsessed by Julian, sets out to unravel the unexplained mysteries of his life." - Raymond Carr, The Spectator
- "The book could have done with a strong-willed editor (the atmosphere of mystery is sometimes flagged up rather than being allowed to speak for itself), but Zafon spins his increasingly complex yarn dextrously. There are well-composed set pieces featuring deserted mansions, alluring women and night-time pursuits through the alleys of the Spanish city. (We read also on the jacket that the author is living in Los Angeles and working as a scriptwriter.) But for all the skill, there is, for this reader at least, an air of fakery. Call it postmodern allusion if you like, but the characters seem hand-me-downs (.....) For those who like their escapism dark and melodramatic, the novel could provide a good week’s beach reading. For the more hard-hearted, it remains a piece of hokum." - Adam Lively, Sunday Times
- "The Shadow of the Wind is a fascinating, disconcerting and (for me at least) ultimately infuriating yarn that consistently mingles brilliance and banality, acuteness and delicacy of observation with cliche." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Though swiftly paced and entertaining, the novel is less metaphysical metafiction than melodrama, less Borges than Hammett, less Eco than Auster. The novel's self-parodying asides -- a version of Carax's story is said at one point to have "all the makings of a lurid melodrama" -- always come a little too late. Zafon was formerly a screenwriter in Los Angeles and the novel reads like a screenplay but think Hollywood, not San Sebastian: every dawn is steely grey, the heavens open at moments of crisis, the beggars and whores are always cheerful, and there is a surfeit of ominously lit crucifixes." - Andrew van der Vlies, Times Literary Supplement
- "I'd like to say more about this superbly entertaining book but don't dare to hint any more about its plot twists. Suffice it to say that -- and here's yet another critical formula -- anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind. Really, you should." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
- "Der Versuch, einen originellen, von der ersten bis zur letzten Seite spannenden, regelrecht süffigen Roman zu schreiben, ist nicht strafbar. Es ist nur sträflich, wie leichtfertig Zafón seine Möglichkeiten verspielt hat. (...) Es geht ihm stets darum, Spannung zu steigern. Deshalb lässt sie mehr und mehr nach. Es ist das Hollywood-Prinzip, das hier durchschlägt: handwerklich solide, künstlerisch anspruchslos. Carlos Ruiz Zafon hat ein spannendes Buch geschrieben. Wo er aufhört, fängt Literatur an." - Martin Lüdke, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind is an ambitious literary thriller; perhaps too ambitious.
Much of it reads like a standard Victorian potboiler, but it's set mainly in Franco Spain (allowing for political under- and over-tones), and there's a strong literary (and bibliophile) cast to it too.
The narrator, Daniel, is the son of a Barcelona bookseller, and the novel opens with a marvelous invention: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
It is this world that Daniel is initiated into in 1945, when he is just ten years old:
In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands.
It's a fantastic place, and Ruiz Zafon adds the appropriate twist to get things rolling, as Daniel's father explains to his son:
"According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive."
Daniel makes his fatal choice, a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a Julián Carax.
As it turns out (and how could it be otherwise ?), this is a very special and extremely rare book.
As soon as it becomes known that Daniel has a copy he gets several very generous offers for it -- but he knows his duty to the book.
But, as someone has been going around for years collecting and destroying all copies of all of Carax's works, being guardian of the book isn't entirely without danger.
Daniel slowly learns the story of the author, who wrote and published several other works in the 1920s and 30s that were published in Paris and then in Barcelona.
He: "lead a ghostly existence between his job as a pianist in a variety club and his disastrous career as a remarkably unsuccessful novelist."
Most traces of his life seem to have disappeared, but over the course of the novel Daniel manages to uncover quite a bit, learning bits and pieces from some of those who knew him.
But for decades the shadowy figure calling himself Laín Coubert -- a figure in Carax's The Shadow of the Wind (the devil, in fact) -- has been trying his damnedest to eradicate the remaining traces, and especially the books that were left behind.
And Coubert isn't the only sinister figure: there's also -- or is it the same person ? -- the novel's arch-villain, an opportunistic sadist who by the early 1950s had risen to chief inspector of the Barcelona Crime Squad, Francisco Javier Fumero, who seems unnaturally obsessed by Carax.
Daniel only slowly comes to learn the whole story -- and only eventually becomes drawn into it completely.
Along the way, among other things, he falls in love with a blind woman, Clara (who had also once been captivated by Carax's writing) and rescues another victim of Fumero's, Fermín Romero de Torres, who comes to work in the family bookshop -- and helps Daniel in his quests.
Daniel does get drawn into the Carax-story, which is more mysterious and complex than he could have imagined.
The pieces fall into place -- childhood friendships and humiliations, disappointed and discouraged love, deepest-rooted and long-lingering hatred and anger --, and conflict and confrontation are unavoidable.
Several of the characters are unwilling to leave the past dead and buried (literally, in some cases), and Daniel finds himself in the middle of it all.
It's a book full of passion and revenge, unrequited love, grave disappointments, and a bit of redemption.
Daniel isn't particularly heroic, but he's a sympathetic central figure, not too ambitious and very human in his failings.
Fermín is a great and resourceful sidekick, and many of the other characters are well-drawn too.
Others are stock characters straight out of Victorian schlock, the purely evil Fumero especially.
Straight out of Victorian novels, too, are some of the twists, from most of the love affairs to Laín Coubert's story and quest.
Much of this is still good fun (and there's certainly enough suspense), but some of it is also simply a bit much.
The heated writing works well in part.
There are moments when it achieves its desired effect, as when one arrives at a scene finding:
The white marble was scored with black tears of dampness that looked like blood dripping out of the clefts left by the engraver's chisel.
But elsewhere he can't sustain it, the writing smoky (or foggy -- as everything seems always shrouded in fog) rather than smouldering, the complexity of the story hampering the presentation.
Ruiz Zafon even has to resort to a long section that is the a manuscript left behind by one of the characters, one of several awkward shifts in his presentation of the complicated Carax-backstory.
Ruiz Zafon sets his sights high, but can't always measure up, and the failures are then all the more pronounced.
The clearest example is that of the wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which he doesn't use nearly well enough (or even nearly enough).
Only once more is a character initiated, brought to this fantastic repository to select a book: "no longer remembered by anyone".
What is the chosen volume ?
A copy of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
(If this were meant as satire one might understand the choice, but Ruiz Zafon is almost relentlessly serious throughout the book.)
The complex story twists and turns all about -- and shifts frequently from present to filling in the blanks from the past --, and the focus is not always precise enough.
Matters do come to a head, and all is satisfyingly (melo-)dramatically resolved, and even if the reader has been tossed about a bit more than necessary, it's by and large a gripping and entertaining read.
Ruiz Zafon doesn't juggle his many ideas quite as well as one might wish, but he shows some admirable restraint with some of the central characters -- not making Daniel a writer, for example, but rather leaving him willing to accept his lesser place in life -- and that compensates for the over-the-top characters (Fumero !).
Uneven, but a fairly engrossing read.
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The Shadow of the Wind:
Carlos Ruiz Zafón:
Other books by Carlos Ruiz Zafón under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Spanish literature under review
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About the Author:
Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in 1964 and died in 2020.
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© 2004-2021 the complete review
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