The Shadow of the Wind is a complex, multi-layered novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the first of four novels in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. It begins in Barcelona in 1945, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The protagonist, Daniel Sempere, is ten years old when the novel begins, and he ages throughout the novel, so he is in his early twenties by the end. Daniel is the son of an antiquarian bookseller, and his mother has died. He has always loved books, and, at the beginning of the novel, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth filled with many halls of books, in a palatial building. Whenever a bookstore or a library closes, its books end up in the Cemetery. Any book-lover will fall in love with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and wish it were real. The keeper of the Cemetery is an old man named Isaac Monfort, who clearly knows Daniel's father well. Daniel's father tells him to select one book and adopt it. The book he chooses is a gothic novel called The Shadow of the Wind by the unknown author Julián Carax. Daniel takes the book home, and as soon as he starts reading it, he is completely absorbed in it and wants to find every one of the author's books.
Then a mysterious figure appears, a man with a burned and disfigured face, who bears a strong resemblance to a character in Julián Carax's book, a figure representing the devil. At first you don't know if the man is real or if the fictional character actually came to life. It will eventually be explained who this person is. When Daniel consults his father's colleague Gustavo Barceló, another bookseller, he finds out that his book is one of the only copies of Julián Carax's books still in existence. Someone is systematically destroying every one of the author's books. Soon you find out that it is the man with the burned face who is doing this. But why? Barceló offers to buy Daniel's book from him, but he refuses. At the same time, he meets Barceló's blind niece Clara and develops a crush on her, which lasts for several years, until he finds her in bed with her music teacher and his heart is broken. Because of what happens with Clara, Daniel is totally uninterested in all other girls for a while, until he meets Beatriz (Bea) Aguilar, his best friend's sister. Her father is a wealthy man who sympathizes with Franco's fascist government, and Daniel is afraid to declare his love because he knows Bea's father will disapprove of him.
Daniel goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about Julián Carax's life. His chief mentor, who accompanies him every step of the way and gives him advice about his love life at the same time, is Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar Daniel discovers near Barceló's house. Daniel and his father employ Fermín as a shop assistant, and it turns out that Fermín was a former anti-fascist spy, and he was imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War and tortured by the sadistic police officer Inspector Fumero. Daniel and Fermín piece together Julián Carax's life, after speaking to several people who knew him. Julián's story becomes a parallel to Daniel's, so the book is really two stories in one. During their quest, Daniel and Fermín discover that Inspector Fumero is on their trail. In a horrifying scene, he beats up Fermín while one of his henchmen holds Daniel down, and he is powerless to stop him. Why has Fumero taken such an interest in Julián Carax? The answer to that question unfolds along with Julián's story.
Julián is the son of Antoni Fortuny, a hatter, and Sophie Carax, a French music teacher, and he prefers to use his mother's last name. You discover early on that the hatter is not Julián's real father, but you do not know, until close to the end, who his real father was. Julián grows up loving books, which his father, the hatter, does not understand. With the help of Don Ricardo Aldaya, a wealthy customer of his father, Julián attends a prestigious school and makes friends with Aldaya's son Jorge. Another friend of Julián's is Miquel Moliner, another son of a wealthy man, who eventually becomes a journalist and marries Nuria Monfort, the daughter of the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Also in his circle of friends is Fernando, a poor boy who becomes a priest, and who will eventually provide Daniel with an important clue. Julián befriends another boy at the school, who turns out to be the future Inspector Fumero, in spite of his friends' warnings about the boy's cruel streak.
Soon Julián falls in love with Jorge's sister Penélope, the only member of the Aldaya family who loves books. Because they fear that Penélope's father will oppose their marriage, the two young lovers meet in secret in the Aldaya mansion. This house is actually as much of a character in the book as any of the people. Much later, in Daniel's time frame, it is abandoned, and Bea Aguilar's father is in charge of the company trying to sell it. Daniel and Bea, just like Julián and Penélope, use it for their secret meetings. The house is said to be haunted and cursed. There are statues of angels just outside it, and it has an enormous library, which Daniel and Julián, at different times, both come to love. In 1919, Julián and Penélope decide to elope to Paris, with the help of his friend Miquel Moliner. Julián gets on the train, but Penélope never shows up. Heartbroken, Julián goes to Paris without her and finds work playing the piano in a brothel, while writing in his spare time. He gets his books published, but they sell very badly, and Julián considers himself a failure. In 1936, he agrees to marry the much-older woman who owns the brothel, in order to guarantee himself an income, but the wedding never takes place. On the morning before the wedding, Julián fights a duel. then returns to Barcelona to find out what has happened to Penélope. At that point, all trace of him disappears. Supposedly, Julián dies in 1936, murdered in the streets of Barcelona. But his father, the hatter, fails to identify the body as his son's. What really happened to Julián? That is the mystery that Daniel and Fermín try to solve.
Their quest proves difficult, because many people, including Nuria Monfort, the daughter of the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, lie to them. Eventually an important clue comes from Jacinta, Penélope's governess, who lives in a squalid, filthy retirement home. A manuscript that Nuria Monfort leaves for Daniel provides the final piece of the puzzle. A long section of the book, starting about three-fourths of the way through, is actually narrated by Nuria, who had worked for Julián's publisher. It tells the story of her unrequited love for Julián, during a visit she makes to Paris to negotiate with his French publisher, and her marriage to his friend Miquel Moliner, who also knows that Nuria is really in love with Julián. Eventually Daniel discovers the truth about what happened to Julián and Penélope, but at what cost? And will Daniel be successful in his love for Bea, in spite of her father's opposition? What will become of the evil Inspector Fumero, and what is his involvement in the case? All these questions will be answered, but I do not want to spoil it here.
Daniel's and Julián's stories contain certain parallels. Both are solitary children who love books, and both aspire to become authors. Each falls in love with the sister of his best friend, the daughter of a wealthier family than his own, and in each case, the girl's father is the main obstacle to their love. Daniel is aware of the parallels between his own life and Julián's, and this is why he feels such a strong identification with him. They even have certain places and objects in common. I have already mentioned the mansion that had belonged to Penélope's father and which is abandoned in Daniel's time. Also, both young men, at different times, become the owner of a fountain pen that had supposedly belonged to Victor Hugo.
The city of Barcelona is also as much a character in the book as any of the people. Ruiz Zafón brings the setting to life, and his descriptions made me want to go there. I only wish the Cemetery of Forgotten Books were real! The English paperback edition of the book contains an illustrated guide, with a walking tour, to the sites in Barcelona mentioned in the book. Some of Ruiz Zafón's descriptions of events that took place in the Spanish Civil War are horrific, but they are never overly graphic.
The Shadow of the Wind is a book that does not clearly fit into one genre. It is part mystery, part historical novel, and part fantasy, with elements of romance and gothic horror. There are a few elements that might be described as supernatural, including a spirit that supposedly haunts the mansion, and the governess Jacinta's visions of a dark angel, whose prophecies always come true. But the supernatural elements are not really a major part of the novel. Above all, this is a novel for book-lovers. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves books. It contains many literary references. I immediately spotted references to The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Les Misérables, which happen to be three of my favorite works of literature, and which play an important role in the plot. As mentioned before, The Shadow of the Wind is the first of a four-book series, even though it is self-contained. From what I have heard, the next book, The Angel's Game, takes place earlier, with a completely different set of characters. The third book, The Prisoner of Heaven, continues the story of Daniel and Bea, and the fourth book, The Labyrinth of Spirits, ties up all the threads. Sadly, Carlos Ruiz Zafón died recently, at only 55. What a tragic loss!