I came across an article, recently, about the best libraries in literature: a list that could not fail to include the Cemetery of Lost Books, a fascinating labyrinth of forgotten tomes created by Zafón. Certain rules exist for those fortunate enough to enter this library: any first time visitor is required to wander the endless maze of corridors and shelves until they find a book to adopt. Once selected, you are responsible for this book for life, keeping it safe and ensuring that its contents are never forgotten. As a final rule, you must never talk about the cemetery.
At the age of 10, and still mourning the death of his mother, Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery by his bookseller father. Daniel’s choice is The Shadow of the Wind, the sole surviving copy of a little-known novel by Julián Carax. Transfixed by the story, Daniel is compelled to find out more about its enigmatic author. Apparently, Carax wrote several books, all venerated by those who read them, but as a writer, he is uncelebrated to the point of obscurity in the literary world. With each step that Daniel takes over the next decade to uncover the mystery surrounding this man and his stories, his own life becomes increasingly intertwined with that of Carax’s, at times mirroring his as if it were always his destiny to unravel the sad, secrets of Carax’s life.
In a novel as labyrinthine as the Cemetery itself, Zafón wends a path of intrigue and adventure through the city streets of Barcelona, leading us from one discovery to the next. Who is the disfigured man, Laín Coubert (the name given to the devil in one of Carax’s novels), who has been systematically burning all of Carax’s books, and seems to haunts Daniel at every turn. Daniel may be in possession of the very last of Carax’s novels and it must be protected at all cost.
Delving deeper and deeper into the perplexing warren of clues that will ultimately lead Daniel to the truth, a fascinating array of characters enter his life, providing him with connections of friendship and information, whilst continuing to intensify the parallel between Carax and Daniel’s lives. Fermín Romero de Torres is one such character. A homeless and destitute shadow of a man, he is taken in by Daniel and his father who provide him with work and the restoration of his former dignity. Imprisoned and tortured for his intelligence activities during the war, he is an ebullient and profuse personality. He becomes Daniel’s “side-kick”, but their probing into the muddied lives of people who are either dead or long forgotten, invites the unwelcome attention of the sadistic Inspector Fumero. Nemesis of Fermín, he was also the childhood friend of Carax.
Zafón’s writing is beautiful and intelligent, full of wonderful imagery. The gothic novel is certainly alive and well here with the passionate, yet doomed love story combining with the horror and suspense meted out by destiny itself, and the malicious ignorance of those who claim to love or who seek revenge.