The Shadow of the Wind is chock full of the elements that make reading so pleasurable – gripping stories, larger-than-life characters, an evocative setting, rip-roaring comedy, melodramatic tragedy, and a likable, engaging protagonist – although it does get somewhat smothered in its own grandiloquent melodrama.
Set largely in post- Civil War, Francoist Spain, Shadow is the story of young protagonist Daniel Sempere, who stumbles across a book (named Shadow of the Wind, for reasons that are made clear by the plot later) by a mysterious and unknown author, Julian Carax, and becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery concerning Carax, the books, and somebody who is out to erase everything associated with them. Shadow is also a bildungsroman of sorts for Daniel, who has to deal with the impact of his raging teenage hormones.
Carax’s life is slowly revealed by Daniel’s investigations, as he runs around Barcelona in an attempt to discover the truth about the mysterious writer – through letters, re-tellings, and fragmentary documents. The details of Carax’s life could almost have come out of an Alexander Dumas novel – a gripping and melodramatically tragic story of love, jealousy, disfigurement, exile, and revenge. But as Daniel investigates further, he starts to be implicated in the questing threads of Carax’s unresolved tale, and his own teenaged existence takes on an almost dramatic quality of its own, mirroring, somewhat, Carax’s own life.
Shadow is at its best when it focuses on Daniel’s own experiences. Tonally, it is much less melodramatic than the accounts of Carax’s own magnificently tragic life, and is therefore more grounded and relatable. Daniel is also surrounded by a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters that populate the little corner of Barcelona in which he lives – a community of neighbors that bring Barcelona to life as a lived-in place. In particular, Daniel’s friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, is the breakout character of the book – an amusingly grandiloquent spinner of tall tales of his inveterate womanizing, who is nevertheless Daniel’s most steadfast friend and ally (and a partner in a sweetly monogamous relationship over the course of the book). As Daniel and Fermin traipse around Barcelona, piecing together the fragments of Carax’s life, while it still remains an abstraction on the page as opposed to a living agency, the book is still assured of a kind of groundedness to its storytelling, interspersed as it is with Daniel’s own adolescent romantic preoccupations.
Nearer the end of the story, however, when the figures of the Carax story emerge, they begin to colour Daniel’s own life with their own portentous melodrama, with less than salutary results. Symptomatic to this is the introduction of one of the book’s least compelling characters – the antagonist Inspector Fumero, a childhood companion of Carax who has a massive, massive bone to pick with the man. Fumero is pure moustache-twirling villain without a single redeemable bone in his body – a straight-up psychopath with a weird “odd-one-out” origin story. Fumero’s motivations never really get fleshed out beyond a generic dramatic desire for revenge – almost elemental, or mythological, in its simplicity – which is okay for what is essentially fiction-in-fiction but not when made a part of Daniel’s own story.
The result of this enmeshing is a story that lurches tonally as it turns into full-on melodrama, culminating in a bombastic climax that segues into a coda of Daniel’s later life – one that is supposed to show how his life has broken the hold that Carax’s own story has had over his own, but does so in a way that reminds the reader that the author had essentially turned Daniel’s own life into a soap opera in the interim.
For all that, though, Shadow is still an eminently enjoyable book, exuberant, old-fashioned, and larger-than-life; a book that, like its namesake, leaps out its pages in its immediacy, even it is somewhat overwhelmed by its melodramatic bombast.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Victor Hugo pens