Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Shadow of the Wind: Literary Labyrinth of Character Connections

Carlos Ruiz Zafon makes an at-first perplexing choice regarding the structure of his novel 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.)


  1. This sounds very confusing but very interesting - much like If On A Winter's Night a Traveller: I know people who threw it across the room they got so frustrated!

  2. I loved this book. I am glad you liked it too. I was worried for a minute after I read some of your other reviews before this book.

  3. I'm with you on the not reading the cover and blurbs. It is so much better to "discover" a novel for yourself.

  4. Good advice - I was so glad to have not read the blurb before reading the book!

    Second, overall I loved this book, and I had totally forgotten that I also actually had some trouble with the first 100 pages or so. I'm not anti-flashback like you are, but it took me a little while to get into the groove of how the story was being told. I at first didn't think it worked so well, but (maybe once I got used to it) it eventually grew on me and proved to be a fabulous book.

    I also remember noticing some of the odd translational problems, but they mostly just made me laugh. :-)

  5. I think this is one I may borrow and read. I'm writing a manuscript based on two time settings and have been wondering the best way to structure it.

  6. I really loved this novel! I read it recently and thought it was fantastic! Then again, flashbacks don't bother me :) Good review.

  7. Sounds great. I have always wanted to read this one and yuor review hasn't deterred me.

    By the way, I found you through the blogger hop and I love your blog! I am already a a follower and will be coming back for more in the future :-)

  8. Great review ,flashback scences frustrate me as well looking forward to the next review

  9. fascinating book choice. and because i'm shallow: how good is that book cover! i love it.

    i just popped over from the Blog Hop, and i'll definitely be following. especially because you're 'currently reading' looks absolutely excellent.

  10. Thats the second review Ive read and they have both been positive reviews. Added to my wish list.

  11. @Bethany - The only time I was confused is when I took a few-days break between readings. Then, I just had to look back to remember who some of the characters were.

    @Book Quoter - Hm, that's interesting. Now, I'm curious what about my other reviews would indicate I wouldn't like this one? ;)

    @Leah - Yeah, and it's one thing of the blurbs are accurate - but in this case, they were WAY off.

    @brizmus - Yeah, my experience was similar: After I got into it, I realize now I was enjoying it, but it was until the end that I figured that out.

    @Myne - That's quite a challenge. Good luck!

    @Rachel - Yeah, the anti-flashback stance may be irrational, but I stand by it. I still liked the book, though. ;)

    @Becky - Thanks! Welcome!

    @bookaddict - Glad to have a kindred anti-flashback soul. It just seems like sloppy storytelling!

    @Ben - The DFW book is so incredibly, fantastically awesome. But definitely has limited appeal, i.e., to those who have read Infinite Jest. I'll post some thoughts on Monday.

    @Jessica - Cool! It really is a good time with a book.

  12. This has been on my list for a long time. Maybe my next Borders coupon will go to finally purchasing? Great review - I'm with you on finding flashbacks somewhat annoying, but they can certainly serve a purpose if done correctly. I'm currently reading The Swan Thieves which has flashback-esque chapters, but they are actually translations of letters that are interspersed with the story, and mostly mimic the timing of the main character's translating them... so it works. But I ramble. Great review, thanks!

  13. Found you through the Book Hop and am now following. I like your review here and am looking forward to reading more. Check out my blog if you have time.

  14. i really enjoyed this book, i think a lot of it has to do with the cemetery of forgotten books - my inner book nerd is loudly excited about this creation! i was very excited to read the angel's game last year, but was actually very disappointed with it, nowhere near as good as this one.

  15. I didn't actually just find you through the Blog Hop, but I was reminded of how much I enjoy your blog and came back to visit. Shadow of the Wind is not one of my favorites - in fact, I'm in the process of writing a "10 Worst" list and have Shadow on the list because I couldn't get over the writing style - but I liked reading your review.

  16. @Kerry - Yeah, they're so rarely done "correctly," though, IMO. It just seems to me like sloppy storytelling - if the details in the flashback are that important, then find a way to write those scenes in real-time, or do something like you say Niffenegger does in The Swan Thieves. That's much better than just a straight flashback.

    @Kelly & chelle - Thanks for stopping by!

    @mummazappa - Yeah, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was great touch. I'm sorry to hear The Angel's Game wasn't good - the paperback is due out soon, and was definitely planning to check it out.

    @2manybooks - Ha - thanks for the kind words. The style was a huge turnoff for me a first too, but I think I just decided to look past it because I wanted to like the story.

  17. I liked The Shadow of the wind very much. As I liked Elizabeth Kostova's Historian.