888 Challenge #7
In post-war Spain, 10-year-old Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Inside this building of rambling stairs and labyrinthine passageways, he is allowed to choose a volume to care for so that others may one day read it - or does the book choose him? Either way, Daniel leaves with a copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. The book is obscure and the author shrouded in mystery; he disappeared from Barcelona, surfaced in Paris, vanished from Paris, and turned up murdered in Barcelona. Now his works are becoming increasingly rare due to the actions of a literary arsonist - a man who torches every Carax novel he can; a man with a charred face and blazing eyes who wants Daniel’s book for himself. So Daniel does the only thing he can think of: hides The Shadow of the Wind deep in the Cemetery where no-one else can find it.
The years pass, but Daniel’s curiosity about Carax doesn’t. One by one he tracks down the people who hold a piece of the mystery, and so uncovers a story as laced with darkness as any Carax wrote. He’s helped in this by a number of friends, including bookshop assistant Fermín Romero de Torres, the ‘man in Havana’ under the old regime and a man in hiding under the new one. His nemesis is Inspector Javier Fumero, a sadist of mercurial loyalties and no love for anyone seeking information on Carax. His presence makes perilous an adventure that is already eerie. Not only is there a haunted house, but Daniel looks like Carax - and now his life is coming to resemble Carax’s as well.
This is one of those books that I close with a sigh and think, ‘If only I didn’t have to give you back to the library.’ And it’s a book I’ll want to read again; not only because it’s so good, but to pick up all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around due to the rate at which I barrelled through the pages. It’s more than unputdownable; it’s a book that draws you in from the very first word and doesn’t let go. One moment I was right there with a dying man on the streets of Barcelona; the next, the chapter had ended and I was back in Brisbane, coming to the belated realisation that the microwave had finished - I didn’t even hear it beep - and dinner was ready. And even as I loved it, it made me despair of ever creating anything half so good.
Daniel is the narrator for most of it, and it was great to watch him grow up, solve the mystery, and confront the major flaw in his character. But of all the memorable characters, my favourite was Fermín; I defy anyone not to adore Fermín. After being taken in off the streets by the Semperes, he repays them with absolute loyalty. He can take care of anything from sourcing rare books at knockdown prices to smuggling a hooker into a nursing home run by nuns; and despite the horrors of his life is indefatigably cheerful (and frequently comical). The mystery is absorbing and filled with unexpected turns; for though some parallels do appear, Daniel’s and Carax’s lives never come to resemble each other closely enough for you to predict what will happen to one based on what’s happened to the other. And it was a refreshing change to meet an amateur detective so willing to confide in people and obtain assistance in his quest. The villain, too, is good: Fumero is devoid of redeeming features and common humanity, but enough is shown of his past that he doesn’t seem one-dimensional; rather, chillingly and sociopathically real.
I could probably ramble on for several more paragraphs, but I will say just this: If you haven’t read this yet, reach for the bookmark, lay down whatever you’re reading, and get thee to a library!