This book has taken me weeks and weeks to read, but finally it's finished, and I'm very, very glad I persevered. It rewarded every minute.
In his eleventh year, Daniel is taken by his bookseller father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a mysterious repository for books that are in danger of disappearing off the face of the earth. He is invited to select a volume, and ends up with The Shadow of the Wind, by someone called Julian Carax. He soon becomes obsessed with the author, whose life and work seem shrouded in mystery. His search for the truth about Carax takes Daniel through his adolescent years into his 20s, through the humiliations of growing up, through the pain of first love. It's a dangerous, even life-threatening journey, with no shortage of excitement, literary mystery and suspense.
Set against the intimately-drawn backdrop of Barcelona in the years before and during the Spanish Civil War, Ruiz Zafon's story is gripping and real. It is at times frightening, frequently Gothic, and often touching, and with a number of sinuous sub-plots adding complexity and three-dimensionality.
Essentially, this is a book about ghosts. It is about how ghosts invade the lives of the living, and how the living can become ghosts by withdrawing from everyday life or by anticipating their own deaths. Ruiz Zafon's Barcelona is adrift with ghosts both living and dead. They populate its nighttime streets, its dilapidated mansions, its hospices, its plazas and gardens, and its deep Civil-War dungeons.
Even the books languish in a gloomy cemetery, wreathed in phantoms. And perhaps this is the key to the book's final message, that like books which can be re-opened and re-read, 'living ghosts' can be reclaimed by the world of the living, and life can be reaffirmed and celebrated through love, friendship and the arrival of new lives.
A coincidentally appropriate message for recent weeks.