The Shadow of the Wind. The plot of this mystery novel has two separate strands; the first is the present-day (well, present-day is 1950s Barcelona) story of Daniel Sempere and his quest to track down the author of the first book he's truly loved. The second is the story of what actually happened to that dashing young novelist named Julian Carax about 30 years before.
Instead of telling his story as two separate alternating narratives, he tells Daniel's story in the present in first person and the rest of the story in flashback or other non-in-scene devices.
So as I traversed the first several hundred pages, I was annoyed — I'm not a fan of the flashback device anyway, and I was dreading another 400 pages of backwards-looking storytelling. What's more, as I was still meeting the characters, it was hard to know what was truly important and what was just background info. For instance, in the first 100 pages, Daniel falls in love with a blind woman named Clara — but then Clara quickly exits the novel. And the reader is left to wonder if she's a significant character for something later on or is she only serving as a sort of cautionary tale of unrequited love? Additionally, one of the first flashbacks tells the story of how Julian's parents met, and the early days of their marriage. Important, or not? I had no idea.
What does emerge as the novel progresses, though, is a complex tangle of character relationships and plot twists in both the present and past. But the story is complex in the sense that it's fun to try to do the detective work yourself and make the connections before Zafon makes them clear. It's not complex in the sense that it's at all difficult to understand what's happening. As you learn more about the twists that explain how the characters are connected (and there are some shocking ones!), the novel becomes more and more difficult to put down.
Frankly, I struggled through the first couple hundred pages for the reasons mentioned above, as well as the fact that, at first, the prose is a bit clunky and it does take some getting used to. And there are several strange translation decisions (or maybe just funny typos — "the dice [sic] had been cast", for example) and some anachronistic prose ("Young man, you're a bit slow on the uptake, aren't you?" — in 1950s Barcelona?). But by about the midpoint of the novel, the translation hits its stride, and the reader is treated to some wonderfully atmospheric and beautiful writing. In fact, for a novel in translation, for the most part, the narration and story-telling is surprisingly smooth and easy-to-read.
So even though this novel violates one of my all-time literary pet peeves — telling story through flashback — (and yeah, like Zafon cares about MY pet peeves!) I will still begrudgingly admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I understand now why Zafon made the choices he did.
(One piece of advice if you decide to pick up this novel: Don't read the cover and inside blurbs. They do the novel itself a vast disservice.)