Carlos Ruiz Zafon was born in Spain and has just turned forty. He moved to Los Angeles in his late twenties, and wrote four books for young adults before turning out his first novel for old adults, The Shadow of the Wind.
Despite living in LA for some years, Zafon apparently wrote his first grown-up novel in Spanish; it was translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert.
For whatever reason, and they are sometimes hard as hell to figure out, The Shadow of the Wind has been a big-time hit in mainland Europe. It was the traditional runaway bestseller in Spain, and in Germany it made number one. In the UK, after a slow start, it gradually made its way up the charts; the chief boost to sales came about when the book was selected for Richard & Judy's book club. (R & J are hosts of a UK daytime TV show; their book club is a less effective sales tool than being chosen by Oprah, but it's still a big help.)
So, what kind of a book is The Shadow of the Wind? Well, it's principally a literary novel, in my view, though there are also some bits of this and bits of that: some mystery, some romance, and so forth.
And what's it about?
Technically it is, I believe, what is called in some quarters a metafiction: a book about a book. Set in Barcelona in 1945, the story begins with an eleven-year-old boy who is given a copy of a book called The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax, and he sets out to find the rest of the author's works. He soon discovers that someone is trying to destroy every copy of everything that this author ever wrote... And so on.
Personally I feel exactly the same way about this book as I did about Kate Atkinson's Case Histories: that is to say, it's not particularly well structured, because the author is still relatively inexperienced as a writer. Despite what some critics will tell you, no one can write a totally successful novel first time out; not even Susanna Clarke. It just isn't possible. And although Zafon has written fiction before, this is his first adult book. It shows.
The consequence of this inadequacy of technique was that I started to skip through the pages fairly early on in the book. In fact, but for knowing that this novel had certainly struck a few chords here and there, I would have given up altogether. After a couple of hundred pages or so, although I was still skipping, I rather wished that I had paid more attention earlier on. Or, to put it more accurately, I very much wished that the author had been sufficiently skilful to persuade me to absorb what he wanted me to know in every detail.
The book is just plain too long, of course, like everything else nowadays. There are some 400 well-covered pages. But by the end I had had a few glimpses of what had caused a number of people to praise it.
If you want to see the publisher's blurb, and have access to an interview with the author, and other material, you can find it here. And for a very handy summary of worldwide critical opinion, courtesy of the Complete Review (a most useful service, by the way -- well done to those who provide it), click here. The Complete Review decides that there is no critical consensus on this book. Some like it, some are less impressed.
My own take, for what it's worth, is that this book achieved its success in the UK through limited word of mouth but, most of all, by virtue of the buzz generated by the Richard & Judy seal of good housekeeping, or whatever they call it.
If you want to know more about the R & J book club, there was a useful article in the Independent last summer. It answers a question that I've been wondering about for some time, namely: How much does it cost a publisher to get a book listed on Richard & Judy?
The answer is nothing. The reason being that Ofcom rules make it impossible for the producers of the show to charge for this service. I have to say that that seems a bit silly to me, because this is commercial television we're talking about, but there we are. It turns out that, in order to get listed on the book club, you have to impress the producer's team of readers. Simple as that.