The Shadow of the Wind
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."
That's the first sentence of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel The Shadow of the Wind. It calls to mind the opening line of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in the way it manages to be simultaneously simple and yet powerfully evocative of a huge story yet to come. The name "Cemetary of Forgotten Books," of course, immediately brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges. And the spooky undercurrent, the hint of intrigue, can't help but make you think of Umberto Eco. If that one sentence isn't enough to hook you, well, I'm not sure that reading my reviews will be particularly useful to you. It was all it took for me to become totally enraptured by this book.
Following that first sentence, the narrator--young Daniel Sempere, the son of a Barcelona bookseller--finds and is enthralled by a book that few others have heard of, the eponym of the Ruiz Zafón's novel. In fact, Daniel finds that he may have the last copy of any of the author's works, as someone has been determinedly finding and destroying every copy of everything the author--Julian Carax--ever wrote. The story of the book and its author is steadily revealed, layer by layer, and the more Daniel discovers, the more drawn into the events leading up to the disappearance of the other books and Carax, himself.
There's so much to love about this book. To begin with, the writing is just a joy. I'm not kidding when I compare Ruiz Zafón to Borges and Eco and García Márquez--some of my favorite authors. In style, in plot, in the wonderful depiction of the setting--Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War--Ruiz Zafón belongs in the same pantheon as those men. The story becomes, at times, so grandly convoluted and so full of passions and revenge and tragedy that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been completely over the top. Yet Ruiz Zafón manages, through a combination of exquisite language and precise control over the layers of plot and how they're revealed, to craft a simply marvelous story.
Of course, what I loved most about The Shadow of the Wind were the parts between all the rushing around and tragically doomed love and madness. The parts about Daniel. I've mentioned before what a sucker I am for bildungsroman, and certainly I related to Daniel's journey into manhood. But it's in the quieter moments of the novel that I found something really great. The tenderness of Daniel's father and all he does for his son--and, of course, how little the teenaged narrator appreciates it at the time, and the regret Daniel later feels about that. The friendship between Daniel and the vagrant he takes in, Fermín Romero de Torres. The strain that develops between he and his childhood friend, Tomás. There's a delicacy and a deep understanding of youth and growth and relationships underpinning everything that resonated with me in a way I haven't felt from a book in some time. Between that and the excitement of the main plot, it's no wonder that I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning to finish the last half of the book in one sitting.
I'm not sure what more I can say about The Shadow of the Wind without sounding hyperbolic--in fact, I may have already crossed that line. But if I must sum it up somehow, let me put it this way: this is the best novel I've read in years.
Started: 3/8/2010 | Finished: 3/12/2010
By Pete Hamill
Reading Forever immediately after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay made for an interesting comparison, since both books are about New York, both written by men who obviously have deep and abiding love for the city. But where Kavalier & Klay is more a portrait, a snapshot of the city at a particular moment, Forever is more like a time-lapse film. And while Michael Chabon's novel exudes the vigor and excitement of the post-war era, Pete Hamill's book has that sense of solemnity that I associate with Old-World legends and, perhaps, magic realism. Actually, Forever probably fits that latter camp pretty well, given both its premise and its execution.
Forever is the story of Cormac O'Connor, born in 1723 outside of Belfast. At the age of 17, Cormac makes his way across the Atlantic to New York to avenge his father's murder, in the process of which he's mortally wounded. He's brought back from the brink of death by an African shaman, who gives him the "gift" of eternal life, though with the condition that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. Thereafter, we follow Cormac through the history of the city, straight through until the present day. Cormac sees the Revolutionary War, the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the corruption of Tammany Hall, and the destruction of 9/11, and Hamill presents it all with a sharp eye for history.
I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the main character. In some ways it's tempting to see Cormac as heroic for his moral stance against slavery and injustice and his actions in helping the little guy. He appreciates art and music, accumulates a wealth of knowledge, and loves the city that he's watched grow from its infancy. Too, the tragic nature of his solitude plays on our sympathies. And yet, the genius of Hamill's characterization is that as alluring a character as Cormac is, he's more complex than that. He reveals himself to be selfish, even mean at times. And his adherence to the code of his Gaelic ancestors--requiring him to seek revenge not only on his father's murderer, but also all of the man's descendants--leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Or mine, anyway.
All in all, Forever is a great read, the prose constantly evolving and changing along with the history it recounts--the opening chapters, recounting Cormac's youth, read like a fable, but before the end of the book the style catches up to the modern day. The whole thing is just beautiful.
Pete Hamill seems to get called "a New York legend" with some frequency--which you'd expect of a man who was editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I'd say, though, that even if he'd done nothing else, the strength of this book alone might just be enough to earn him that title.
Started: 2/23/2010 | Finished: 3/5/2010