How do you summarize a novel that’s a mystery, a supernatural thriller, a love story, a coming-of-age story all bundled up in 500 pages? Politics, love, books, loss and life all come together in this slightly melodramatic but enthralling debut by Zafon. Set in Barcelona in 1945, just after the Civil war, the book follows the protagonist Daniel; from the day he walks with his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and picks the eponymously titled book written by one Julian Carax. We follow Daniel as his life (and others’ too) is forever changed by this choice as he attempts to solve a mystery surrounding the Carax book.
What worked for me
The meta theme. A book about a book, a mystery about the mystery. The power of books, how they shape our lives. I also liked the locale. I have a thing for exotic locales. Its arm chair travel. Here I saw Barcelona so closely that when I drove to work, I thought I just needed to make a turn here and I would reach Calla Ana and sit at a café and order coffee and sponge fingers. I am also learning Spanish these days, so a novel set in Spain was bit of a thrill. The era also worked for me. Early to mid-century. The quaint customs, the strange ways. The book is rich. Like a tapestry. Plots and characters weave in and out, all giving their (flawed) versions of a story, or rather the mystery that forms the backbone of the narrative.
It’s verbose, yes and every minor character is painted in detail and I found asking myself why I was not bored by it. Perhaps it’s the tight rein that Zafon holds, never letting the words fall completely overboard (this is exactly what I thought after reading Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, she has a tight rein there too). Why did I feel invested in these characters so much that it mattered to me which church the governess of a character attended. Perhaps it’s the language - the book is originally in Spanish and is translated by Lucia Graves, who I must say has done a terrific job of translating the lyrical, almost epic language of the book. Or perhaps it was the mystery itself and I looked for clues in the most unexpected places, asking myself, will this matter how the mystery is solved? Will the mystery be even solved?
The book is a wild roller coaster ride that will give you butterflies in your stomach, that will take you on hairpin curves and to great heights only to drop you and turn you upside down until you scream – in delight or in terror (or both) – finally coming to a stop. All the while hoping and praying the end is not disappointing. When a book takes you on a ride like this, the only thing you fear is being disappointed in the end. But the book ends on an agreeable note. And it comes to a full circle and you all know how I fall for things like that.
What did not work for me
The mystery is not the best mystery in the world. I solved most of it. What also did not quite work for me were the supernatural horror elements in the book. They add to the atmosphere, yes, but they kept me awake a whole night. I don’t like horror. I don’t like to be scared (and yes, I scare easy).
Hot or drop
Totally hot. This is Hitchcock on steroids. It’s an unputdownable book. Don’t miss this one. Also, a question -if you were to pick a book that would change your life in a literal, day-to-day events way, which one would it be?
Wednesday, March 4, 2009