Friday, March 18, 2005

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

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.

39 comments:

Stefanie said...

I'm sorry you didn't like the book that much. I loved it. I agree there were parts that were slow and could have been different or better, in particular the far too long letter that explained everything, but overall I really enjoyed the book. I've passed it around to quite a few people and all have said they liked it (and I don't think they were just being nice either)

Kathy said...

I can't imagine anyone being as dismissive about this book as you have been. I absolutely loved 'The Shadow of the Wind'; and I didn't hear about it from any book club or review - I just found it on a store shelf one day. Ruiz Zafon writes beautifully and has quite a mastery of language. What you call poor structure, others would call technique - he merely goes forward and back in time (which really was not difficult to follow) He craftily weaves mystery, intrigue, romance, and wit into a quite memorable literary work. I just went to the bookstore to find another of his books to immerse myself in and was very disappointed to find that this is his first and only to date (other than for younger readers); personally I can't wait until he publishes his next work.

mike said...

I agree with you. It undoubtedly shows that this is his first adult work.

fulvio said...

I've to say this is a fantastic novel, it's very hard to leave the book, you want to keep reading and reading to the end, then you regret having already finished it. Zafon is a gifted writer, and I really look forword to his next book. I would also like to mention the storic background of a Spain opressed by the Franco's ditacture and the difficulty to live with a limitation of your freedom.

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this book. In fact, I read it twice back to back - of which I have never done. This is on my top ten list without a doubt.

Anonymous said...

This book is lame. I don't understand how anyone could keep on reading this book. For me its a school assignment but other than that I wouldn't waste my time, after page 20 I quit reading it.

Anonymous said...

yes, well im sure after 20 pages you would have a great understanding of the book.
i loved this book and would recommend it to anybody.

Anonymous said...

Dear, dear, what a pompous review. Only an old fart could fault the faultless technique in evidence in this novel. If you find this book hard to follow then you must be reading with one eye off the page. I found it one of the easiest books to follow in years, simply because the story was seeping atmosphere and was wonderfully engrossing. It may involve some limited concentration, but I don't call this 'effort' when I enjoy the work so much. What a refreshing change from a lot of the post-modern horseshit I've waded through in recent years. A joy, one of those books I reread when I want my spirits lifted: like Jonathan Coe's 'What a Carve Up' or Laurie Lee's 'Cider With Rosie'.

Bernadette said...

Fabulous book - I read it twice and got so much more out of it the second time round. I love the way he expresses himself, such as when he puts forth the idea that books embody the souls of their writer, and the soul becomes greater with each new reader who values the book. I found The Shadow Of The Wind to be a wonderful mystical mystery - a treat to be savored, and a joy to read.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this book! to the reader who said that they only read 20 pages, how can you say that you know a book in 20 pages? The only thing that made me a little uncomfortable in this book was the way that women were portrayed. I understand that Zafon was going for a "period" piece, but I thought he went a little far.

Anonymous said...

I bought The Shadow of the Wind simply because Stephen King gave it a rap and I love SK. But this book is just something else! I read it on my journey to work and home and I was always disappointed when my stop came. It was absorbing, interesting and a very imaginitive story. I felt like I was right there alongside Daniel and some of the twists and turns left me shell shocked. a great book, I'll be seeking out more of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's!!

Matt said...

I bought this book at a yard sale having never heard of it or its author.

I found it to be very engrossing and well-written.

The historical setting in post civil war Spain was quite interesting. The Franco period doesn't seem to get much attention in the U.S.

Clark said...

Too long? I couldn't get enough and was disappointed when it was over. Absolutely one of the best books I have ever read, and to top it off it was a school assignment. Best homework assignment ever.

Anonymous said...

How sad to be so jaded and not simply read for pure enjoyment. The Shadow of the Wind was chosen as the first book for a program called Lake Oswego Reads, where our entire town read the book, restaurants catered their menus and wine lists around the book, there were group discussions in coffee houses and everyone was talking about how much they loved it. It was a great experience and I wish he had more books translated into English. I've recommended the book to many who have loved it as well. Sometimes it's nice to read for fun. Try it.

Stephanie Mueller said...

I've never read a book that grabbed me so immediately and yet with such gentle hands. Every word seemed perfectly selected to convey just the right feeling. I was captivated by the beauty of the writing and the vocabulary used. I loved this story...it had everything....mystery, intrigue, romance, lost love, betrayal, and yes, even humor. I read it, much like young Daniel, in just one sitting. I cried at the end, not for how things turned out, but because there was no more for me to read. Like an excellent meal, this book left me with such a feeling of satisfaction. I have recommended it not only to friends but to my students. Hands down, it is the most wonderful book I've ever had the good fortune to come upon, and quite accidentally too. I can't wait for Zafon's next novel! Oh, and by the way, reading only 20 pages of a novel doesn't constitute reading let alone absorbing. Don't cast opinions of something when you are ignorant of what you speak.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the reviewer has a chip on his shoulder - writer's envy, maybe?

I thought it was a hugely entertaining book. To those who find it "swampy", "not well structered" or "not sticking to a genre" - lighten up, people!

Anonymous said...

This is the best book I've read in the last five years, and one of my all time favorites to be shared---which I have done at every opportunity---and to be re-read. My entire family ---Americans, Germans, Hungarians---has read it, and none of us could put it down. Very sad when it was all finished...The style is fresh, the story engrossing, with characters that snare the reader. I can not wait until Zafon's next book---the reviewer for this blog-review site clearly enjoys pontificating, but fails miserably in his assessment of Shadow of the Wind.

Anonymous said...

i was completely in love
with this book when i read it
i havent yet met anyone who
has liked it!
my only regret was that it was
over, i would Love to read
Any of his books just so they remind me of shadow of the wind
the story was orginal and absorbing!

The Ronin said...

I bought this book in a goodwill store, thinking not much of it, when i got out of jail my life was broken and the love of my life had left me. I read this book and viewed much of myself in the story. I laughed and cried and felt for the characters as if they were real. I love this book and hope others will read it and cannot wait until the zafon's next novel.To the critic I say I'm sorry you felt the you did maybe you should take on another hobby homie!

Anonymous said...

I loved Shadow of the Wind. It takes me completely out of my life and I become absorbed in the story. I've read it 4 or 5 fives and I always end up crying by the last few pages. I have made alot of people read it and they all end up falling in love with it too.

Historia said...

I just picked this book up at a sale table today. Never heard of it or the author. Am only on page 32, but so far I LOVE IT.

Don said...

Although there were some parts of the book that I found a little slow, overall it is one of the best books I've ever read. Admittedly, I judge a great book not on it's literary value, but rather on how enjoyable it is to read and this was a very enjoyable read. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I don't see how you can possibly adequately review a writer's work without reading the entire book. Don't skip pages and then expect people to take your review seriously. And, nothing personal, after reading your rambling, poorly written review (was it a review of "The Shadow of the Wind" or you going on about Richard & Judy's book club?) I seriously doubt your ability to review any real writer's work.

Anonymous said...

Joanne said.... This is a brilliant book which is beautifully written. I cannot believe you would give this author such little credit for such a masterpiece first novel. I am honoured to have found this book and to have read this amazing story.

Kate said...

as an avid reader, who especially likes novel approaches to fiction (no pun intended, really), i thought hands down this was one of the most amazing, creative, ingenious novels i have ever read. it was truly a book-lovers' book. i read it a few years ago when it came to the states and have been recommending it to all of the true book lovers i know. i really can't understand how someone couldn't at least appreciate the complexity of the way the story weaves together and all of the characters. i was really surprised to see the original review was negative, but obviously if you're going to skip pages in the beginning you're not going to understand the rest, so you really don't have a lot of business critiquing the book as a whole.

Anonymous said...

As others, I was completely absorbed by this book. I love long books. Perhaps Europeans love it because they have a different approach to life than the North American drive for the immediate gratification, but instead enjoy the slow savouring of a well-developed and thought out story. I am certainly one to skip pages of drawn out description when an author has poorly written a section of literature, and then has to directly tell the reader what she/he needs to know. However, I was definitely not skipping here. I enjoyed every line, and even reread turns of phrase that just captured me. Mr Zafon, we await your next work with baited breath...

50yearoldbooklover said...

I have to disagree with the negative comments. I found it intriguing, a little tense and wonderfully poetic. I found nothing to be slow or tedious and I read a great deal of fiction- from Literary classics to Modern thrillers. It's a good story and I hope he comes out with another very soon.
Tessa

Anonymous said...

It's obvious that you read it in English. In Spanish, its original language, it is the most amazing book you'll ever read.

cjm said...

I found this book to be one of the best I had read in years, couldn't put it down. I love Barcelona, and I felt like the city was another one of the characters. I cannot wait for his next book.

Anonymous said...

I loved it too! I think I read somewhere that 'Shadow of the Wind' is to be the first part of a trilogy? or at least one of 3 books set in Barcelona _ does anyone know any more? Since reading this book 2 years ago, I have been eagerly awaiting Zafon's next work, but it just never arrives and there is nothin on his website indicating what is coming next or when

George said...

Those who cannot write, criticize. Given Michael's poorly written and badly constructed critique, he is clearly jealous.

This book was the most enjoyable of the last 20 I've read. I laughed, I cried, I was gripped. And if you an attention span longer than Michael's - or even a gnat on amphetamines - you will too.

Anonymous said...

"Grumpy" is an apt description of the critic...I absolutely loved this book ..read it years ago when I worked at an independent bookshop in Vermont..I was there for 18 years so I did(and still do) a lot of reading...it ranks in my personal top 10 reads and I hand-sold it to many of my customers back then..I am still waiting, with great anticipation, for the next book of his..this book came to the forefront of my mind this past week as I was reading Geraldine Brooks' PEOPLE OF THE BOOK..I say "it is all about protecting the book" ..protect the books = protect the people

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading this novel and absolutely loved it. I started working at a school 3 weeks ago and saw it just sitting on a shelf in the classroom that I spend most of the day. Two days later, a co-worker of mine offered the book to me saying no one was interested in it. To say it is simply about a book about a book is insufficient. At times, there were so many stories going on within the book I felt a bit overwhelmed but enthralled. I started reading it during breaks at work, a few pages here and there but quickly found it was not enough. I found myself delving into "Don Carols'" work as soon as I stepped in from work and couldn't put it down until my eyelids forced me to. I plan on reading it many more times and plan to recommend it to everyone I know. I have to say I was surprised to find out that this was is first adult novel.

Anonymous said...

Did you even read the book? Not well structured? It was written so well it was almost poetic! What planet are you from? I can't wait to see what Zafon comes up with next.

Anonymous said...

the reviewer is absolutely correct in noting Zafon's disjointedness, sloppiness and the overall bloat in this novel. Zafon is not without raw talent, but unless his future efforts are leaner and organized more harmonically, his readers will lament that his occasionally clever ideas are not realized more skillfully. A credible first novel, but Zafon needs to tighten up his prose and limit the boring discursions if he wants his novels to unfold with momentum and clarity.

Anonymous said...

Even though I did get the sense that it was written by someone without much experience, overall I felt that the book was amazing. I was so engrossed in it that I read it straight through in one sitting. I love how everything is woven together in the end. I can't believe that anyone would criticize this book, though, because it has such an incredible plot line.

Kevin said...

I loved the book's haunting beauty. On a purely cosmetic note, I would recommend picking up the hardcover Subterranean Press edition. It includes a nice little secret. If you turn the dusk jacket around, it becomes the THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Julien Carax, printed to look exactly as it is described in the novel. It even looks aged and worn!

Lynn said...

I also loved the book - my husband, who has never even heard of Richard and Judy, bought it for me for Christmas in 2005. I devoured the book on holiday in Mauritius so it has lovely mixed memories for me when O think of it. Just discovered that his next book to be translated into English "The Angels Game", which is also set in Barcelona and revisits many of the places first introduced in Shadow is to be published later this year. I, for one, cannot wait!

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Jay said...

Quite easily the worst book review I've ever read. This just proves that any useless joke can make a blog to feel important.

Good job having nothing valid to say.