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21st June
2010
written by Steph

Fair warning to all of you: what is about to follow is likely to be a hugely controversial reaction to a novel that is well-loved by book bloggers the world over. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that it’s taken me so long to finally read The Shadow of the Wind, although that in itself is probably shocking enough. No, I must reveal – with all due respect to its champions - that I think The Shadow of the Wind is a fairly terrible book. How sad that I should have to type those words! After all, the premise seems so promising. One fateful eve, Daniel is brought to a mysterious archive by his father known simply as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Daniel is told he may choose one book, and with his selection, he will promise that said book will never be without a home or a reader again. As if drawn by a power he cannot understand, Daniel selects a book entitled “The Shadow of the Wind” written by Julian Carax. Daniel feverishly devours the novel and soon makes it his mission to track down all other novels penned by Carax. Much to his dismay, he finds that Carax’s novels are no easy things to acquire, especially since someone has made it their mission to burn all of Carax’s books that remain in print. As Daniel works to unravel the mystery of Carax and the secrets of his past, he finds him swept up in a sinister and deadly game of cat-and-mouse, and we all know what curiosity does to cats… This is the novel that seems to have it all: danger, intrigue, romance, and yes, books! How could it possibly go wrong? In some ways I don’t even know where to begin, but I’ll start with the most jarring issue I had, and that is the writing. I realize that The Shadow of the Wind is a novel in translation and so perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the prose, but the writing was SO BAD that I just can’t overlook it. I don’t know if I’m dealing with a poor translation or if Zafon is just a godawful writer, but whatever it was, this book was a nightmare to read in English. Although I’m aware that there are plenty of subtle difficulties involved in translating a novel, I know that it’s fully possible to provide elegant and intricate English versions of Spanish works – just look at Edith Grossman’s work with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the work that’s been done with Roberto Bolaño and Isabel Allende if you don’t believe me. But this novel was clunky and awkward and jarring to read. In some ways I have to think that it would be this way no matter what language one was reading it in. Let me give you one of my favorite examples:
The echo of my footsteps followed me through the corridors and galleries that led to the cloister, where the glow of two yellowish lights barely disturbed the shadows. It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps Bea had tricked me, that she'd arranged to meet me there at that untimely hour as some sort of revenge… She laughed nervously. 'I don't know what came over me. Don't be offended, but sometimes it's easier to talk to a stranger than someone you know. Why is that?' I shrugged. 'Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as they wish us to be.' 'Is that also from your friend Carax?' 'No, I just made it up to impress you.' 'And how do you see me?' 'As a mystery.' 'That's the strangest compliment anyone has ever paid me.' 'It's not a compliment. It's a threat.' 'What do you mean?' 'Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide.'
Guys, this is not good writing. Not only is that dialogue ridiculously inane, overly maudlin, and nonsensical, but it’s pretty representative of every conversation that occurs in the book. There was just something so wooden about the way people in this book spoke, as if everything they said was supposed to be meaningful and deep, when in fact no one would ever speak this way in real life. Because if they did, they would soon find that they had no one to speak to. But even barring the dialogue, which is pretty atrocious, I’d like to draw your attention to the juxtaposition of “untimely hour”. I get that “untimely” technically means inconvenient, but it’s so jarring to refer to something as untimely only to then make a reference to time. Why not just say inconvenient or inopportune or even infelicitous?  I just found the whole book to be written in this clumsy and sloppy fashion, and it really bugged me. As for the story itself, while it wasn’t entirely without merit, I felt it was ultimately rather uninspired and again, pretty sloppy and juvenile. It didn’t feel well-crafted to me, and many of the “twists” were far from surprising. It was only out of sheer stubbornness that I read the whole thing, because honestly I didn’t really care about any of the characters (especially Daniel who I found to be an obtuse and cowardly protagonist) or how things turned out. I could see how Zafon was working to make Daniel’s present circumstances echo the events that befell Carax, and while I admired his attempt to draw these parallels and add depth, I felt like the actual execution was heavy-handed and lacking in finesse. It almost felt like Zafon was hitting you over the head screaming, “LOOK HOW THESE TWO CHARACTERS ARE EERILY SIMILAR!!!” In the end, nothing about this book rang true for me; plotting, writing, characters and their motivations, all of it fell flat for me. I’m all for a fun romp, but all of these weaknesses conflated to make this book a mess that was far from enjoyable. I kept being thrust out of the story (which I felt wasn’t all that accomplished to begin with) because of all these cracks, and that really resulted in an underwhelming reading experience. I know this book has tons of fans so my less than impressed reaction won’t hurt Zafon any, but I can say without any doubt that this will be my last book I read by him. I mean, I pretty much never say this, but: I hated it. Rating: 1.5 out of 5

30 Comments

  1. 06/21/2010

    I have not been able to read any of his books, in spite of their huge popularity. I never get very far when I try, however! But the dialogue definitely has been one of the problems for me. Love the section you cited! Makes you want to say, “HUH?”

  2. richard
    06/21/2010

    I just think the problem is that you’re an idiot. Snobby, pretentious, opinionated and plainly stupid. I’m glad you hated this book. It is always a good sign when morons hate on something. Instead of making such grandiose speeches and proving to us how smart you are (lol), why don’t you just get a life and move on?

  3. 06/21/2010

    @ rhapsody: I’m glad I’m not the only one who was less than impressed with Zafon’s books! I only know one other person who read this book and didn’t care for it, and I thought maybe she was overstating the case for this being a less than stellar book. Sadly, I agreed with her!
     
    @ richard: I take it this is your first visit to the site, but the m.o. here is to provide a platform for my husband and me to write about our experiences with books that we read (as well as sundry other things). As a result, you should fully expect our posts to be opinionated, but you should not expect these opinions to be universal or to necessarily conform with your own. At no point did I feel I was making grandiose speeches or proving my intelligence (can one ever do that on the internet?), but rather relating my take on the book. Sorry if you don’t agree, but if you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. I should have heeded my own advice and quit with this book!

  4. 06/21/2010

    Oh, I am sorry to hear you didn’t like this one! I read it long ago, and do remember being less than satisfied with the twists in the plot, but overall I thought it was an ok read. I do see what you mean about the language being a little silly though. Hadn’t remembered that. I don’t think I loved this book as much as many people did, but I did really like The Angel’s Game because of it’s philosophies, not so much for the story or the writing.

  5. 06/21/2010

    I have to say that I liked “The Shadow of the Wind” enough to read it twice (a couple years in between readings). I think I focused more on the story line itself rather than the naturalness of the conversations — it seems to me that after translation (even better ones), conversations can come across as being somewhat silted.

    Shaking my head at what Richard said…this guy does not reflect what most of your readers think of you; I am sure of that!

  6. 06/21/2010

    Have not read this one up but tried to read The Angel’s Game and could not finish it. For many of the reasons you list here but especially the writing. The purplish prose did not strike me a as deliberate reflection of the themes. Nor did I consider it a piece of metafiction, reflective of the Gothic elements of the novel. Liked the atmospheric elements, the descriptions of setting. I wonder if this was the same?

    Richard, perhaps you should offer a specific counterpoint to Steph’s well-voiced argument against rather than attack her personally. One of the weakest forms of debate is the argument ad hominem.

  7. 06/21/2010

    @ zibilee: I know that tons of people have read and adored this one, so I know my response here is certainly in the minority. I think I could have overlooked a less than captivating plot and characterization if the language had been less clunky to my ear, but I guess for me that was one weakness too many for me. I read that The Angel’s Game is a prequel to this one, so I likely won’t be picking it up since that premise doesn’t really appeal to me!
     
    @ Valerie: I agree that translators have a really hard task to capture the spirit of the original work but make it organic for different readers. I have certainly read my fair share of awkward translations, and as I said, I’m not sure if this was just another example of one, at least for me.
    And I’m glad that even when I voice an opinion that others disagree with, most of our readers are respectful of that (as I am of anyone who puts for a different view than my own)! It’s so interesting that people get so bent out of shape when we claim to dislike something someone else loves, but rarely do people attack when one professes to love something that another doesn’t care for!
     
    @ Frances: I could see how Zafon was working to build a gothic atmosphere, but I guess I just felt that he didn’t carry it off with much finesse. As you said, the prose didn’t seem like it was deliberately attempting to capture a style, or if it was, it wasn’t being done with aplomb. I wouldn’t say this book was devoid of atmosphere, just that as a whole, I didn’t think the novel was successful. As Girl Detective mentions in her comment below, I think The Thirteenth Tale is a much better reappropriation and homage to the Gothic-lit oeuvre.

  8. 06/21/2010

    Steph, this was one I liked things about after I read it,

    http://www.girldetective.net/?p=2175

    but the further I get from it, the less I like it. I can forgive some of the purple prose because of translation and gothic-horror-ness, but the roles of women in the book were sexist and sexualized. I wouldn’t read it again, and it wouldn’t be one I’d recommend. I do like The Thirteenth Tale, with which I think it has a lot of similarities.

  9. 06/21/2010

    I read this years ago, before there was so much hype, and enjoyed it well enough although I don’t think it deserves the abject devotion it gets from some. It was fun, not fabulous. Same with the sequel.

    I don’t really remember much about the writing. If wasn’t good or bad enough to stick in my mind, I guess. I’ll readily admit, though, that I have a higher tolerance for prose that borders on the purple than some do 🙂 That excerpt actually, reads to me a bit like stylized noir dialogue, which sort of works.

  10. It is nice to find someone that shares my opinion – I couldn’t finish this book. It is a long time since I attempted it, so I can’t remember what my specific problems were. I keep seeing people raving about it, so always wonder if I just read it at the wrong time. Earlier today I saw Sandy raving about the audio version. I’m tempted to try that, but wonder if I’d end up having the same reaction?

  11. 06/21/2010

    @ Girl Detective: Thanks for linking to your review – I had forgotten that you had read and reviewed this one last year. I think I might have been more bothered by the portrayal of women in this book if I hadn’t checked out of this book so early on. The writing made it really difficult for me to engage or connect with the book on a deeper level, and was probably the issue that bothered me the most.
    I did read The Thirteenth Tale a few years ago, and I think it was ultimately much more successful and enjoyable than this. I felt it skillfully captured the appropriate Gothic tone, while also crafting an interesting mystery that was true to the novel’s Gothic roots.
     
    @ Teresa: Maybe the purple prose is less obtrusive in the original Spanish… I think I can stomach overwrought writing on occasion, but there was something about this writing that felt like it lacked any real flair. As readers, we all have different pet peeves and tolerances, so I fully get that some people would read the snippet I included and not be bothered by it at all!
     
    @ Jackie: Yay! Another person who doesn’t want to excoriate me for finding this less than awesome! 😉 Perhaps the audio book would somehow manage to finesse some of the more wooden bits of writing – obviously I can’t say – but I don’t blame you for not being able to finish this the last time you tried it!

  12. mee
    06/21/2010

    Yikes! I have this book on my tbr for years now and haven’t got to it. Now I wonder if I should. The dialog snippet above made me cringe. It sounds like a bad soap-opera, though it could just be a bad translation. On another note, this is the first time for me to hear about “purple prose”. What is that exactly?

    ps: I think you should just ignore hate comment like from Richard above. Some people like to throw hate comments and run off. I get some of those on my review of Catcher in the Rye (wonder why) and I didn’t even bash the book.

  13. 06/22/2010

    I felt obliged to read this book because it was praised so highly but like you I found it a huge disappointment. I am not sure what genre is fits into but I think its more fantasy than anything else, and definitely not “literary fiction”. I tried his next book too and gave up on that also! You wrote a good review here

  14. 06/22/2010

    Nice review, Steph. This is a book I’ve wanted to check out for a long time. Now I’m not so sure. From the excerpt I agree the dialogue was abysmally grandiose and unrealistic.

    I wonder, though, if word choices like “untimely” is a translation issue or the author’s fault. Awkward descriptors I would think would be the spots where translation issues creep into a text.

  15. 06/22/2010

    @ mee: “Purple prose” refers to writing that is overly ornate or elaborate… very fussy, I suppose you could call it.
     
    @ Tom C: I have to say, it’s a relief to see more and more readers who didn’t care for this one come out of the woodwork. Kudos to you for being brave enough to try his second book… I certainly won’t!
     
    @ Eric: I have to stress that the writing in this book is exactly like the snippet I posted. That wasn’t a one off gaff, or anything like that. I knew fairly early on that the writing was going to bug me, and yet I persevered. I think if you are still kind of curious, check out the first chapter or so and see how it feels… I think you’ll find it’s pretty awkward.
    You’re right that untimely could be a translation issue. Obviously many of the weird/awkward word choices could be. But I wonder then why they would have gone with this translator!

  16. 06/22/2010

    Stef,

    You have no idea how invigorating it is to find someone else who feels the same way as me about this book!

    I have to dodge the tomatoes everytime I mention it, especially how bad the dialogues are and how every character in the book could die and I wouldn’t care one bit…

  17. 06/22/2010

    You’re so not alone! Last year I tried to read this book, in the Portuguese translation, but I put it down after just one chapter because the writing made me cringe so badly it wasn’t even funny. I thought the problem might have been that the Portuguese translator stuck to the Spanish syntax a little too closely (which can happen when the languages are similar), and I wondered if I should try the English version instead, since I’d heard so many bloggers praise the writing in particular. After your review, I don’t think it’d be for me either.

  18. 06/23/2010

    @ Alex: Thankfully not too many tomatoes have come my way for this post, which has surprised me! I realize reading is a matter of taste and completely subjective in many ways, but I don’t get the appeal of this one at all!
     
    @ Nymeth: The fact that the Portuguese translation of this book is also super awkward makes me think that it might not be the translator who are at fault here, but rather it may be the original text that is flawed. I guess I could see if the French version of the book is any better than the English, but I’ve been tortured enough by this one, I’m afraid!

  19. kay
    06/24/2010

    Well, you can take Nymeth’s words and replace “Portuguese” by “French”. I too wondered if the problem was me or the translation, and I put it down thinking I would maybe finish it later. I’m sorry to read that the English is probably not better.

  20. 06/25/2010

    @ kay: That does it – if not just the English translation is wretched and stiff, I am blaming Zafon himself for the poor prose. What are the odds that three translators would do such a shoddy job? No more Zafon for me!

  21. That extract is dire! I bought a copy of this a few years ago but still haven’t read it; each year it becomes less and less appealing (in fact, if I remember correctly it is sitting in my boyfriend’s parents’ house, never reclaimed). Reading your review and the subsequent comments (those articulate and balanced comments) have convinced me that I’m not missing out.

    I didn’t care for The Book Thief much and this similarly over-hyped and unimpressive.

  22. 06/26/2010

    The last comment I left mentioned that I don’t mind tossing non-classics out in the first 10 pages? Well, this is one of those books that I tossed out after trying to read the first 10 pages. Just couldn’t do it. It bored me to tears. I’m glad to hear you give this opinion!

  23. 06/27/2010

    @ Amanda: I was sure before posting that everyone but me loved this book… it’s great seeing other readers I admire and trust coming out of the woodwork and letting it be known that the emperor has no clothes!

  24. 07/05/2010

    I’ve always been interested in Zafon. I’ve had the impression that he’s the noveau-Garcia Marquez. But, man, describing light as “yellowish”? I will pass. Language means a lot to me, and if it’s as clumsy as that — maybe we need to wait for a new translation, or learn Spanish altogether. Or not.

    And, Richard. Man.

  25. 07/13/2010

    @ Sasha: Oh man, Zafon could not be farther from Garcia Marquez! I didn’t even dwell on the “yellowish” adjective, but yeah, that’s not great writing in any language! From what it sounds like, none of the translations have been awesome, so I think Zafon is just not my kind of writer…

  26. Eva
    07/21/2010

    OMG, I read this pre-blogging and thought it God awful. And I’ve thought I must be the only one ever to think that way, since no other blogger has mentioned in with anything other than praise! I’m so glad I’m not alone!

  27. 07/21/2010

    @ Eva: I pretty much only read positive reviews of this one too, so I’ve been really happy to hear others chime in and say they also detested it! This is why blogging is great! 😀

  28. _lethe_
    09/09/2010

    A very belated comment, but I just wanted to add that the Dutch translation was just as awful. Clearly it’s Ruíz Zafón who is at fault here.

    Glad to find that we are in a larger minority than I thought!

    By the way, a Spanish friend did tell me once that Spanish authors have a predilection for florid prose.

  29. 09/09/2010

    @ lethe: Well that seals the deal – apparently this book is awful no matter what language it’s read in! Crossing this author off the list in terms of ever reading anything else by him!

  30. 02/08/2012

    I persevered with this book as it was lent to me by a friend I respect. But I have to say it was pretty awful. The characterisation is cringe-making – for instance, Thomas is a fairly robustly drawn character who really did not need the additional characteristic of speaking to his teachers only in Latin. The over-characterisation suggests Zafon is not confident of his characterisation ability – or perhaps displays a lack of confidence in his readers. I found myself wondering about his marketing background as the novel gave me the impression of a shallow marketing tool devised with the sole intention of mining a relatively low-brow mass market. That it was short-listed by the Richard and Judy bookclub says it all really.

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