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'The Shadow of the Wind:' A Book Review

by Paul Combs 6 months ago in book reviews
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Zafon's novel stays with you forever

Image: Penguin Books

I have written several times about Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and have reviewed several of his books. However, it was not until last night that I realized I have not done a review of his most famous (and easily best) novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Having written nearly 200 stories here over the past year, this oversight is beyond unforgiveable and must be rectified immediately.

Rarely will a novel be critically acclaimed, a huge commercial bestseller, and still somehow hold the status of a cult classic, yet Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his debut adult novel The Shadow of the Wind (he had previously written four novels for young adults). First released in Spanish in 2001 and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind is the first of four novels revolving around the city of Barcelona that make up the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (the other three are The Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven, and The Labyrinth of the Spirits). To date, the novel has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide; the only Spanish author who has sold more books than Zafon is Miguel de Cervantes, and Don Quixote had a 400-year head start.

The novel tells the story of Daniel Sempere, who at age 10 is taken by his father, a Barcelona bookseller, to the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret place where books that might otherwise be lost forever are stored and protected. While there he chooses a book called The Shadow of the Wind by unknown author Julian Carax. Daniel immediately falls in love with the book in that way we only seem to do when we are very young, and after finishing it he is determined to read every word Carax ever wrote. He encounters a sinister obstacle, however. It seems that someone is burning every copy of Carax’s work that they can find; even more mysterious is that the man bears a striking resemblance to a menacing, disfigured character in Carax’s book. Daniel’s quest to save the remaining copies is intertwined with the story of Barcelona and its recovery from the Spanish Civil War.

The Shadow of the Wind also contains one of the greatest literary sidekicks to ever appear on the page: Fermin Romero de Torres. Fermin is a larger-than-life character who simply takes over every scene he’s in. He is critical to the story because he provides a worldliness that Daniel, being still quite young, lacks. Fermin was apparently special to the author as well: Zafon made him the main character in the third book in the series, The Prisoner of Heaven. Some sidekicks, like Fermin and Huck Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, just refuse to stay in the background.

I have written before about how much I love a good bibliomystery, and The Shadow of the Wind is that and so much more. It has literally everything a reader could want: action, humor, romance, and books, all wrapped up in a compelling Gothic mystery. No less a fan than Stephen King called it “one gorgeous read,” and that’s an understatement. It’s a novel that examines the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don’t even realize. There is one quote from the novel that sums this up nicely:

“Every book 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.”

This quote so impacted me that when I was painting the walls of my bookstore before we opened, I wrote “Every Book Has a Soul” on every wall in the place in permanent marker and then put four coats of paint over it. The guy who moved into the space after the bookstore closed told me that he simply put two more coats of paint over mine, which means that unless a future tenant strips the paint down to the sheetrock, Zafon’s immortal words will be there forever.

Prior to his untimely death from cancer in 2020, Zafon often said that The Shadow of the Wind was about the relationship between the book and its reader (just as The Angel’s Game was about the relationship between the book and its writer). You can feel that throughout the novel, and furthermore it underscores the fact that books, and I mean real paper and ink books, matter. The Shadow of the Wind is truly a book with a soul, and books with such a soul are all too rare. It is a modern-day classic that everyone should read, and the only thing I didn’t love about it was that it didn’t go on for another 500 pages.

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About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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