Review: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon; trans. Lucia Graves

Y’all. What is wrong with me?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. What really is wrong with me? Lovely Kristen of We Be Reading, one of my favorite people in the blogosphere and fellow Diana Wynne Jones lover, gave me this book as part of her blogiversary giveaway last summer, and I am only just getting to it now. What? Why am I like this? I was fully aware that this was a delightful adventurey booklover’s novel, and yet I let it sit around my Louisiana room for months and months, and then I let it sit around my New York room for three months more. What? Why would I ever do this?

(That one was not a rhetorical question. I know why I would ever do this. It is because of the translation issue. I am shy of books in translation and tend to avoid them because I think I’m going to dislike them. I’ve only read like ten books in translation since I started this blog. That’s terrible. I deeply enjoyed a third of those books, which isn’t an awful record, but it should be borne in mind that I only read translated books when I am moderately to extremely confident that I will love them.)

The Shadow of the Wind was just the reading experience I was after this week. On paper it should have been the best book in the world for me, and in real life, that’s exactly how it worked out. Don’t you love that?

Our protagonist, young Daniel Sempere, discovers and adores a book called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. When he goes looking for more books by the author, he discovers that a mysterious figure who goes by the name of the devil character in Shadow of the Wind has been going around finding every copy of Carax’s books and burning them up. There are wicked police officers, abandoned mansions, unreceived letters, unrequited love, coveted Montblanc fountain pens: basically everything you need for a lovely, bookish, gothic mystery story.

The Shadow of the Wind was the fully satisfying version of The Thirteenth Tale. I loved the characters and wanted good things for them. I was entranced by the mystery of Julian Carax, the unraveling of the story behind the book-burner, the relationships of the characters, particularly between Daniel and his friend Fermin (I kept thinking of Phantom of the Opera — anyone else?). There was also one particular mystery strand (I won’t spoil it for you) that I was sure would resolve in a predictable way that would irritate me, but instead of that the resolution was quite unexpected, and I think far more interesting. I was delighted with Carlos Ruiz Zafon when I got to that bit.

Not that it was a perfect book, but its flaws were the kinds of flaws I like, such as straying into the realm of melodrama at times, and having slightly soapy elements. These are flaws that remind me of Victorian sensation novels, and those are novels I love in my heart. If you are not a Victorian sensation novel lover, The Shadow of the Wind might not be for you. But if you are, then this book will fill your heart with joy.

When Mumsy and I went to London in 2009, and I was strolling down the South Bank, Carlos Ruiz Zafon was having a signing in the South Bank Foyles. I didn’t care about Carlos Ruiz Zafon so I didn’t go in, but I remember thinking, Gosh, if I ever start to love Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I’m really going to regret this moment. That has happened now. Same with Shaun Tan signing books in the Charing Cross Foyles. Bother. Bother. If I still lived in Louisiana, I would regret these moments even more. I feel like in New York I’ll have a second chance to see these authors, whereas publishers don’t really send authors to the South because they think we don’t read. (This post on that subject made me want to give Neil Gaiman a hug.)

Many, many other people have read this, so I’ll refer you to the Book Blogs Search Engine. One of you who has read this and loved it, may I inquire if you felt the same way about the other two of Zafon’s books that have been translated into English? Are they equally full of letters and books and gothic streets and joyless gay-hating police officers and book-burners? Should I read them tomorrow, or will a Shadow of the Wind hangover make them less fun for me?

64 thoughts on “Review: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon; trans. Lucia Graves

  1. I liked, but didn’t love Shadow of the Wind, and I felt pretty much the same about The Angel’s Game. Really, really fun to read while I was reading it, but the details haven’t stuck with me at all. IIRC, opinions about Angel’s Game were pretty sharply divided when it was published. I think it was darker and more ambiguous than Shadow, which might have put people off.

  2. This book has ‘Jenny’ written all over it!!! I’m so glad you loved it. I haven’t read The Angel’s Game yet – I bought that two years ago and haven’t cracked it open. So technically I am worse than you. Maybe we could read it together? Have a readathon? On the sofa at your apartment/my apartment if I move to Manhattan and have somewhere decent to invite you back to rather than the hovel you so graciously slept in without complaining?! And you can make me food like you keep promising. πŸ™‚ And we can eat icecream.

    • Duuude, we should totally do that! We could eat dinner food and have mimosas in the morning! And read a book and watch Empire Records. πŸ˜€ Also, your apartment is not at all a hovel.

  3. My DH bought this for me when it was first translated, and I was so proud of him for choosing such a good book for me all by himself (sadly, he is not a fiction reader. Le sigh). I also liked it much more than Thirteenth Tale which I can barely remember. Haven’t gotten to any more Zafon yet though.

    And thanks for the link to Gaiman’s blog posting. I LOVE his work and I would walk through a snowstorm to see one of his readings! I wonder if he’d come to San Antonio someday. So sad that publishers think people don’t read her in the south — I wonder if they lump Texans in that group as well?

    • I liked The Thirteenth Tale, but I wasn’t crazy about the denouement. The Zafon denouement was really satisfying.

      I know people in general don’t always consider Texas part of the South South — I don’t know about publishers. Has he never come to Texas before?

  4. They don’t think we read in the South? But, but…the library here is so much better than the ones I had in New York or Maine!

    Oh well. Prejudice. This book sounds right up my alley, and I may break my hard-and-fast no-translations rule. Because, you know, i don’t want to be prejudiced or anything.

    • Neil Gaiman says that’s what they think. Also when the fifth Harry Potter book came out, and we were all at B&N waiting for it to come out, there was a lady from New Jersey who was like “Look at all these people! I didn’t know this many people in this town could read!”

      Yeah, I think you would like it, Mumsy. You liked The Thirteenth Tale, right?

  5. Glad you like this Jenny! I read it and can’t stop until I finished it. I didn’t get the same raving reviews from the other books of his though and I too am in a limbo as to whether I should read them or not.

    Maybe not. πŸ˜‰

  6. I was a bit worried at the beginning of your post that you weren’t going to like this book. Whew, I’m glad I kept reading. Part of my utter enjoyment of this book was I read it a few months after I had been in Barcelona. I could smell the city as I read it. (Not to imply that Barcelona has a distinctive smell, I was just completely immersed in the story)

    I haven’t read his other books, but I plan to someday. Of course, I also plan to go back to Barcelona some day.

    • I’ve never been to Barcelona, but I have relatives in Spain, so I might yet make it to Spain. I think it would be cool to read the book again after visiting Barcelona.

  7. Re: Books on translation

    My favorite version of “Pride & Prejudice” is a delightful old Spanish translation where all the character’s names are in Spanish too. Isabelita for Lizzie, Juana for Jane, etc. Except Darcy, I think, ’cause it seems impossible to find a name similar to Fitzwilliam (ΒΏFitzguillermo?). And the dialogue was so wonderfully… Spanish.

    In my experience, unless it’s a truly complex narrative, translations doesn’t mess much with the general feel of the story. But said experience is for books written in English and then translated to Spanish. I have no way to know how it works the other way around :/

    • That sounds charming! I think I’m bothered about translations because I keep worrying that the translation is no good. I know it can make a huge difference to my enjoyment of the book when I’m spending all my time worrying about that.

  8. Wow…you had me at The Thirteenth Tale comparison. I loved that book and if it’s the perfect Thirteenth Tale then I’m totally there. I’ve actually had this on my list for ages but I don’t know what the hell has stopped me from actually reading it :/ I do that sometimes…..stupid me…

  9. I love this book and story so much. It’s one of those books I recommend to everyone, regardless of genre-preference because everyone I know has enjoyed it.

    • I want to recommend it to loads of people now! I might even send my copy to my sister, because I think she’d enjoy reading it of a cold winter’s night. πŸ™‚

  10. I think THE ANGEL’S GAME was comparable in quality, though I found the protagonist somewhat less engaging.

    …and that’s about all I have to say because–shocking revelation coming up–I’m one of the three people in the ENTIRE WORLD who doesn’t love Carlos Ruiz Zafon in the face. I think he’s okay, but he doesn’t entrance me. I feel very bad about this. 😦


      I am not really shocked. There are no books that are good for all people. You shouldn’t feel bad about it! (Of course I am currently reading A Star Shall Fall on your recommendation so I feel like you should never feel bad about anything. :p)

  11. I loved Shadow, but was more confuzzled by Angel’s Game, and in the end, not as in love. Yes, it’s delightfully booky, but I’d give yourself a break in between, otherwise you might suffer from that too much of a good thing syndrome.

    • I always love Victorian melodrama. Victorian melodrama is my very fave — I was worried that Shadow of the Wind wouldn’t be as amazing because it wasn’t set in Victorian times. But it was!

  12. Yussssss. If melodrama is a flaw, then I must love, love, love hugely flawed books! ;p Glad I’m not the only one to have put off reading this book forever to find out that I luuuuurved it.

  13. This is certainly the best of Ruiz Zafon’s currently available-in-translation novels. The Angel’s Game is more in the supernatural realm which was a bit disappointing after the real-world darkness of this one. I’m so glad you finally read and enjoyed the book! I love sharing my favorites and was glad to share one with you especially!

    • Thank you so, so much for sending it to me! I loved it (obviously). :p You are the best. I will try to be prepared for supernatural elements in Zafon’s other books. I like supernatural things, as long as I know they’re coming (usually).

  14. I felt the same way about the blog post by Neil Gaiman! Of course, Atlanta attracts a few more authors than other Southern locales, but not as many as in the northeast. Frustrating!

    This book has been on my TBR pile for way over a year. Maybe even two. I think I have hesitated for the same reason as you did. Would I like it in translation? One thing I have learned as I have taught works like Chaucer and Shakespeare is that much is lost in any “translation,” so I have a sort of apprehension about reading translations. I can’t read Spanish, so I’d have to read an English translation, but I worried about what would be lost/changed. Thanks for sharing that experience because I think it will encourage me to read the book this year. It sounds like it would be perfect for a couple of my challenges.

    • Yes! You have just said exactly my entire viewpoint on books in translation. But on the other side, I don’t want to be reading only books by Americans and Brits and Canadians (and Australians etc). I feel like it gives me a limited view of the world and I should expand my horizons.

  15. Like Teresa, I enjoyed this book a lot without falling head over heels for it. I do tend to hoard books for a long time without reading them, particularly ones I am sure I will enjoy. I know this sounds perverse, but it matters so much to have exactly the right book when I NEED the perfect read, that I can’t help but stow away the books that cry out to me the most.

    • I do the same thing. I especially hoard books by authors I know I like, and save them for when I need a special treat. There are still several books by Salman Rushdie I haven’t read, and I haven’t read Persuasion since, like, high school. Not because I don’t like it! I’m saving it.

  16. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions: A Manifesto « Jenny's Books

  17. This book is waiting for me on my shelf, like so many others. I think I would like it, though, so I should stop putting off reading it! That’s ironic and unfortunate about your missed Carlos Ruiz Zafon signing…at least you had the forethought to recognize the potential regret!

    • I often think about how I’m going to feel in the future, and I am often totally right. The only thing is that I don’t necessarily take action to prevent future regret once I’ve anticipated it. I mean I didn’t care about Zafon then! How could I have gone to his event? I hadn’t read any of his books! The real thing is I should have read his books sooner. Sigh.

  18. I read this one because an elderly friend–my stand partner at the local symphony orchestra–pressed it upon me. It took me months to get through it, and I only persevered because I had to tell her what I thought and didn’t want to disappoint her by turning out a philistine. It did get interesting and in the end I was glad I’d read it. Perhaps I can blame the translation for how difficult it was to read?

    • Aw, sorry it wasn’t as good for you. Were you able to think of nice things to say about it? I’m always so nervous borrowing books from people I know, because I know I have to think of nice things to say about the book even if I hate it.

      • I told her I was glad I read it, which was quite true. It’s flattering, really, to be known as someone who reads a lot and have people who don’t read that much pressing their favorite books on you–you like books, try this one!

  19. Unfortunately I read this book around the same time as the Thirteenth Tale, which totally eclipsed it for me. The snow, the mansion, the dying woman–extremely vivid. All I can remember of the Shadow of the Wind is the atmosphere, which was certainly good. I guess I can imagine England better than Spain, and the clearer pictures stick better. Unless you think Setterfield’s writing is more visual?

    • See, I found this much more satisfying than The Thirteenth Tale. I definitely liked The Thirteenth Tale! But Shadow of the Wind resolved itself better than The Thirteenth Tale did — it rose above what I was expecting, whereas The Thirteenth Tale built up and built up, and I wasn’t happy with the solution to the mystery.

    • Actually, our different preferences make sense in this, because I never read books with must investment in the solution to the mystery. Not even mysteries. I do like things to be unpredictable, but it matters more to me when it’s things like characters’ hidden motivations and pasts, not what happened and how it was done. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll have to think about this. I agree the plotting wasn’t the best part of the Thirteenth Tale.

  20. Oh this review made me do a little happy dance in my chair! I loved this book as well, and all the elements came together perfectly for me. I would totally recommend The Angel’s Game, which is the second book, but be warned that it is very different, and very dark. It made my best of list in 2009, but it really made me question some of my long held beliefs about spirituality and my soul. An incredible read though. He is just so lush and wonderful in his wording!

    • Oh, wow, sounds like The Angel’s Game is even darker than I thought it would be. I do want to read it straightaway, but I think it’s a better idea to give myself some space first. (Also because I’m reading some other awesome stuff right now!)

  21. You know, I expected to love this book too, because the plot was so intriguing. But I didn’t like the writing…I thought there were too many simplistic cliches, for one thing. I didn’t finish it. I wouldn’t be opposed to hearing about how it all ended, though πŸ™‚

    • I know what you mean about the cliches, and I saw them too, but I enjoyed the plot so much I didn’t mind.

      Do you really want me to tell you the end? I will! If you really want me to. I’ll email and tell you. But sometimes people say they want to know the end, and then I tell them and then they shriek “WHY DID YOU TELL ME?” I have become cautious now.

  22. I loved this one so much more than Thirteenth Tale! And itput Barcelona on my top 3 REALly want to visit cities. I also don’t thinkI realized it was a work of translation since I was pretty clueless back in those pre-blogging days. Somebody handed it to me and told me toread it and I opened the FIRST page and fell in.
    I used to be obsessed with owning drooling for coveting Montblanc pens and I am still trying to figure out how to afford (justify) one.

  23. I absolutely loved this book – glad to read you enjoyed it as well! There were only a few times that I thought it belabored its point, but I honestly wouldn’t know where anything could have been edited out – the translation was also lovely. Not often does a translation work so well.

  24. We read this book in my bookclub a couple of years ago, and whilst we enjoyed it, most of us thought it was a little over-hyped. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Barcelona, but I didn’t like the ending. Most people who’ve read it seem to really enjoy it, though (maybe it was just us, though it’s rare for us to agree on a book). I thought ‘comic book hero’ rather than Phantom of the Opera.

    • I guess I waited out the hype long enough so that I wasn’t thinking about it when I was reading, and it didn’t mess with my enjoyment of the book. I didn’t know what to expect from it exactly, so it was all a delightful surprise.

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