“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.” (p 502)
I love this particular quote because it sums up precisely why Gathering Books the website was created in the first place. And yes, I agree that a book comes to you for a reason. And that its message can only be understood when it comes to you at that point in your life when you are ready to hear its voice.
The 505-page-novel has all the ingredients for a fast-paced, mysterious, coming-of-age narrative: there is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Stories within Stories (as Edgar Allan Poe phrased it, everything is but a dream within a dream), Incest, Betrayal, Mayhem, and twists upon twists. Being visually and spatially challenged, I got lost somewhere in page 400 or so with all the characters and quick turns of the plot. Perhaps if I had been diligent in reading a few chapters each night and really followed through the events happening in the book, I would have appreciated it more. But as it is, I only manage a few evenings here and there to steal a few chapters for my delectation. Imagine having to pee in the middle of Bourne Ultimatum and having to take short power naps while watching Angels and Demons or Da Vinci Code. You’d have to press rewind by flipping through previous pages to remind you exactly what happened. The full, head-on, rollercoaster experience though is lost.
The story begins with a bright-eyed young boy being brought by his father to a dusty, forgotten library somewhere in Espana – where abandoned books find their way home. This in itself manages to set the tone of the book: attempts at magical surrealism, with a hint of mystery, a dash of deceit, and the voyeuristic tendencies among the readers to discover along with the protagonist what exactly happened to Julian Carax, the author of Shadow of the Wind – the book that spoke to Daniel in one of the dusty shelves of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
The entire plot is predicated upon Daniel’s discovery of who the book author is – and why on earth are the books of Julian Carax being meticulously destroyed by a raspy-voiced ghost of a man whose face is grotesquely half-burned and calls himself the Devil. The beauty of the story’s unfurling is evident in the fact that as Daniel discovers more about Julian, the more he is taken deep into himself. The edges of their lives blur in parallel that one would be hard-pressed to tell one from the other.
The novel is delicious with its attempts at flowery speeches and imageries (thanks to the presence of the character Fermin who has a predilection for long-winded narratives). However, this also proved to be the author’s undoing since he uses the pronoun “I” to refer to Daniel, yet his “voice” is not as apparent as Fermin’s. In fact, the narrator’s voice sounds uniform thru-out despite the fact that the nuance of each character’s traits and personalities vary greatly – this becomes problematic somewhere in the latter part when the story starts being told by other characters like Nuria Monfort through the letter that she left for Daniel before she was murdered. It sounded contrived although it was written supposedly by this character; the narrative style slips back to what you would expect from a long-winded Fermin or the teenage Daniel.
What I find fascinating about the story is how the elements of Castilian realities could be teased out and interwoven with the Filipino heritage and love for drama and soap opera. That’s it! The entire book is like a telenovela with illicit love affairs; strict, God-fearing fathers (or protective older brothers) who would rather die than see their unica hijas or sisters violated by their suitors. And of course not to be missed is the eternal sense of Catholic guilt that knows no beginning nor end. It’s reminiscent of a 70s Filipino love story gone wrong – what with all the parental prohibitions, disgraced states of women who were strong enough to defy familial expectations. All the female characters, while elevated to a queenly/angelic state, all end up with their wings clipped, their crowns all askew, and are either dead, heavily pregnant/or in a whorehouse, or rambling incoherently away in a sanatorium.
If you wish to recall what it was like for you as an adolescent falling in love for the first time: the headiness, the scents, the intense unadulterated yearning that knows no boundaries – then this book would inevitably bring you back to that time. There would undoubtedly be a slight pinch in your heart as you witness Daniel’s heart being broken by Carla Barcelo, the ephemeral blind woman who exists in any boy’s teenage white fantasies (this character actually reminded me of someone from Allende’s House of the Spirits). Then you sigh and celebrate with Daniel as he finds love again in Bea primarily because it reminds one of how it was like during that time of naivete and short-sightedness about the singular thing that wraps itself around a besotted teenage boy’s consciousness.
While it did tend to ramble on quite a bit during the middle and latter part of the story, it is a worthwhile read, particularly for young adults (early 20s) or those in their late teens. The content/themes may not be suitable though for younger teens. They would definitely find someone to relate to in the stories what with all the clearly defined blacks and whites, good and evil neatly portrayed – yet effectively camouflaged and slightly textured in all its innocent complexity. If you want more information about Zafon, check out his official website: http://www.carlosruizzafon.co.uk/ for greater details.