Barcelona, Spain.1948. The seamy, bleak world of a city recovering from the heartbreaking damage of civil war and under the iron rule of Franco. A young boy Daniel, is taken by his father, a second hand bookstore owner, to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books and there is told to choose a book and adopt it, “making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive.”
Daniel randomly chooses ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by one Julian Carax and takes it home, staying up all night to finish reading it. He so loves this book that he sets out to find more written by the same author, only to find that there no other books exist. There are not even any other copies of The Shadow of the Wind and the existence of the author himself is shrouded in mystery.
As Daniel grows older, he continues to look for books by Julian Carax, but it becomes clear that his copy is the only Carax in existence. A sinister figure has been systematically finding and destroying all the other Carax books and Daniel himself is now in danger.
Zafon’s Barcelona is a dark and murky world, straight out of a Dickens novel – narrow, gloomy alleys, dusty old bookstores, mouldy abandoned mansions and an overwhelming feeling of menace.The twisting streets are peopled with strange and shadowy characters, sadistic officials and the poor and dispossessed still glazed with memories of a harsh civil war.
The young Daniel is a likeable character – growing from a wide eyed, bookish nine year old to an enquiring teenager, who naively stumbles into relationships and love. His obsession with the book’s history deepens, yet all the while he remains unaware of the increasing dangers circling him. Other characters are equally interesting – the irrepressible and eccentric Fermin Romero de Torres, pulled out of a beggar’s life on the streets to help in Daniel’s father’s bookshop, makes a humorous and wise detective partner to help Daniel as he tries to solve the mystery.
There is something charmingly old fashioned about this novel – it is like stepping into a black and white movie or into the dusty pages of a Victorian gothic novel. The plot twists and turns extravagantly, with only the occasional clumsiness in telling the story – there are sections where the author too obviously brings the reader up to speed on the intricate background and you could point out the occasional overuse of cliches and over sentimentality. But that can all be forgiven – a little bit of European dramatic temperament is all part of it’s charm. Highly recommended.