(This review first appeared in January 2006)

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Penguin Books (2005), 487 pages.

This is a book for people who love books. Not just the language of books, but the very essence of bookness—the feel and sight and smell of books, and the fact that the very good ones are actually alive:

Every book, every volume you see here, 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…. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.

Those words were spoken by Daniel’s father, an antiquarian book dealer, as he introduces ten-year-old Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. We’re in Barcelona in 1945, and Daniel lives alone with his father as his mother died from cholera six years earlier. At the Cemetery, Daniel’s father tells him that “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 chooses a book called The Shadow of the Wind, which sets in motion a mystery that will unravel (and loop around) for the next decade, as young Daniel matures and devotes his life to trying to figure out the origins of this mysterious book and its mysterious author, and the mysterious man with a limp who is said to be tracking down and burning every copy of Shadow of the Wind that he can get his hands on. This is not, however, a mere mystery. This is first and foremost a treasure trove of sumptuous language that begs to read slowly and carefully and repeatedly. There’s mystery and intrigue, certainly…there’s also love and gothic horror and intriguing Spanish history, including mid 1950’s Spanish politics and war, but I must stress that more than anything else this is a book for lovers of language.

This book is written exactly as Daniel describes his own The Shadow of the Wind: “As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step-by-step the narrative split into a thousand stories…” That is precisely what is so enthralling about our Shadow of the Wind. There’s a huge cast of characters, but each one feels important (unlike in similarly populated books in which the characters feel superfluous and contribute little).  Here, even the most minor characters have a richly detailed back story. Anybody who loves books—truly loves books—must read this.

The object of my devotion, a plush black pen, adorned with heaven knows how many refinements and flourishes, presided over the shop window as if it were the crown jewels. A baroque fantasy magnificently wrought in silver and gold that shone like the lighthouse at Alexandria, the nib was a wonder in its own right. When my father and I went out for walk, I wouldn’t stop pestering him until he took me to see the pen. My father declared that it must be, at the very least, the pen of an emperor. I was secretly convinced that with such a marvel one would be able to write anything, from novels to encyclopedias, and letters whose supernatural power would surpass any postal limitations—a letter written with that pen would reach the most remote corners of the world, even that unknowable place to which my father said my mother had gone and from where she would never return. One day we decided to go into the shop and inquire about the blessed artifact. It turned out to be the queen of all fountain pens, a Montblanc Meinsterstuck in a numbered series, that has once belonged, or so the shop attendant assured us, to Victor Hugo himself.

*  *  *  *

As a child, Maria Jacinta Coronado was convinced that the world ended on the outskirts of Toledo and that beyond the town limits there was nothing but darkness and oceans of fire. Jacinta had got that idea from a dream she had during a fever that had almost killed her when she was four years old. The dreams began with that mysterious fever, which some blamed on the sting of a huge red scorpion that appeared in the house one day and was never seen again, and others on the evil designs of a mad nun who crept into houses at night to poison children and who, years later, was to be garroted reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward with her eyes popping out of their sockets, while a red cloud spread over the town and discharged a storm of dead cockroaches. In her dreams Jacinta perceived the past and the future and, at times, saw revealed to her the secrets and mysteries of the old streets of Toledo.