That it's so tempting to read SHADOW OF THE WIND is a tribute to clever marketing. Comparisons to Marquez, Borges, and Dickens mix with gushing tributes from Stephen King and references to best-sellerdom in Spain. The literary come-on is hard to resist.
In the end however, the way you respond to this book will depend on what expectations you bring to it. If you anticipate a reading experience worthy of those heady literary comparisons, you'll be sorely disappointed - Zafon is little closer to Garcia Marquez than Stephen King is. The closest he comes is having the temerity to give a minor character, a boyfriend of Beatriz Aguilar's, the family name Buendia, the prolific clan from ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. If you plan, however, on a fantastical romp through a mid-century Barcelona converted wholesale into a gothic swamp of ghosts, shadows, haunted houses, malevolent, revenge-seeking, jilted lovers, swooning virginal maidens, improbably picaresque characters, unbelievable coincidences, parallelisms, and twists of fate, and a host of pseudo-Freudian relationships, you'll love every minute.
The story line of SHADOW OF THE WIND is so complex and convoluted, it's nearly impossible to relate in less space than the book's own 487 pages. Suffice to say, the premise is drawn from the search of a teenaged boy named Daniel for the truth about the fate of Julian Carax, the author of a mystery story (also named "Shadow of the Wind") that Daniel has adopted and read after his bibliophilic father takes him on a "coming of age" excursion to the aptly metaphorical Cemetary of Forgotten Books. Carax has apparently written a number of other books, all of them commercial failures, yet someone has been traveling Europe to find and burn every extant copy of Carax's works.
With twists and turns that would make the Minotaur's head spin in his Labyrinth, Zafon spins multiple parallel tales of Platonic love, blind love (both literal and figurative), failed love, enduring love, filial love, forbidden love, and unrequited love. Through it all looms the mystery of Julian Carax. Is he alive or dead? Who is burning his books, and why? Who is the char-faced phantom? Why does the evil Fumero seek such hate-filled revenge? Will young Daniel ever find his true love?
Zafon's book could be easily parodied or brushed aside as little more than a Barbara Cartland romance, but his writing is better than that despite being too often over the top. From the opening page where Daniel describes his mother's death as "a deafening silence I had not learned to stifle with words," Zafon mixes searing images and thoughtful observations with engagingly quirky characters such as Fermin Romero de Torres who capture the reader's imagination and heart like 20th century Sancho Panzas and Dulcineas to Daniel's idealistically questing Quixote.
Unfortunately, these pluses are offset by unrelenting and heavy-handed atmospherics in which every page is marked by clouds, shadows, mists, flickering candles, twilights, smoke, rubble, ruins, twisted heaps, blood, and "glutinous darkness," and the like. Florid prose abounds: "The white marble was scored with black tears of dampness that looked like blood dripping out of the clefts left by the engraver's chisel. They lay side by side, like chained maledictions." Readers must also contend with two laughably miraculous conceptions, both occurring after first night trysts (a tribute perhaps to the ineffable virility of Spanish males?), and an unfortunately anachronistic request by a Barcelona doctor in 1954 for a "brain scan" of an injured Fermin (page 288).
Net net, SHADOW OF THE WINDS is entertaining escapism with modest literary pretensions. Enjoy it for what it is, but don't expect it to be more than it is.