30 Before 30: The Shadow of the Wind

1232The Shadow of the Wind

Reading like a prose ode to literature, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a book lover’s dream. It’s been a few weeks since I read it, but one of the most potent passages from the first chapter is still very much embedded in my mind:

‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend’.

Discovering a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books would be akin to finding heaven on earth for me. If such a secret library actually existed, I might never leave. Except to venture out to the odd party. And to buy an eternal supply of tea and crisps.

For Daniel, the main character of the book, the discovery of this repository of obscure literature in the bowels of Barcelona and his subsequent ‘adoption’ of a long forgotten novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, not only eases the pain of his mother’s death, but begins an obsession that will characterise his transition from boy to young man. When he discovers that a mysterious figure named Lain Coubert (which he later find out is the name of the devil in Carax’s books) has managed to destroy every copy of the novel apart from his own, Daniel starts to investigate the author, Julian Carax, and to piece together the enigmatic story of his life.

Though his detective work often lands him and his trusty sidekick, former Spanish Civil War torture victim Fermin Romero de Torres, in hot water, Daniel continues to attempt to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life- which, he soon discovers, is one that encompasses family tragedy, a doomed love affair, and layers of lies. Like a typical teenager, Daniel ignores the threats of Lain Coubert and a corrupt police officer in order to fulfil this self-imposed mission, ultimately facilitating his own journey to manhood.

Despite the convoluted plotline (which I’ve only really given a bare outline of), the basic idea that a book has the power to catalyse change and transform lives is one that all bookish types cannot fail to appreciate and understand. Other than this, what I really loved about the novel was the sense of community within it- how neighbours rallied round to support each other and stand up for those who were being persecuted in the years after the Civil War- and the use of some classic gothic tropes, such as the archetypal gothic building. Blending the gothic tradition with historical fiction, comedy, and a touch of romance, Zafon’s novel has a bit of everything to keep people enthralled until the end.

The fact that it is also beautifully written means that it is very hard to criticise the novel. If your concentration span is limited, you may find it difficult to follow in parts, but this is quite a minor flaw in my (very biased!) eyes. Ultimately, it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me think. But, more than all that, it filled me with a sense of belonging; with a sense that I had found a writer who truly understood my reverence for the written word and the hallowed status that books have always had in my life.

There is no question about it: I will definitely be reading The Shadow of The Wind again. And, quite possibly, every other Zafon book I can find.

Read it if you can; it’s a literary gem.

Gothic Reads

After indulging in a bit of Halloween fancy dress this weekend, followed by a seasonal Tim Burton offering (Sweeney Todd, to be precise), I decided it was time to spook myself out with some gothic literature. Here are some brief overviews of a few of my favourite scary reads, in no particular order, if you want to fire your imagination on these dark nights…

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte


A gorgeously atmospheric ‘love’ story based on the gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, Wuthering Heights is eerie rather than terrifying, and strangely hypnotic- haunting you with questions long after you’ve read it. Featuring implied necrophilia, possible incest, and a myriad of other gothic characteristics, it is memorable on the basis that the mysteries it presents to the reader are never truly solved, remaining instead, like the ghosts of the characters themselves, at the heart of the dark and dramatic landscape that Bronte created.

nb. If you find the passages of Joseph’s dialect a bit hard-going, don’t worry…even those of us who are native to Yorkshire struggle to understand it!

The Turn of The Screw- Henry James

Turn of the Screw

Horror stories are always much creepier when they involve children…

This story of a governess and her two wards, set in a secluded old mansion, is unsettling not just because of its supernatural elements, but because you’re never quite sure who to believe, and, as a result, remain on edge at all times. Is the governess experiencing a mental breakdown, or are the ghosts of former members of the household really haunting her? Are the children as sinister as they appear, or has the governess become obsessed with the idea that evil forces are at work, corrupting their innocence? Whether you read it as a psychological thriller or as a ghost story, the Turn of the Screw is an indisputable gothic gem, destined to make you ponder the reliability of both the narrator and the human mind.

The Little Stranger- Sarah Waters


When I first read this, on a dreary night in the dead of winter, I eventually lost all sense of reason (not that I had much in the first place!), finding myself terrified of even going to the toilet alone!

Based around the fading fortunes of a formerly wealthy family in 1940s Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is the story of a series of strange and spooky happenings that eventually lead to their downfall. Characterised by the traditional gothic tropes of decline, decay and decrepitude, this contemporary horror slowly builds up momentum, the tension becoming tighter and tighter, until you feel as though your nerve, like the once beautiful house that the novel centres around, is beginning to crumble!

As in The Turn of The Screw, much of the horror comes from the idea that a child may be at the root of the supernatural goings-on. Like most ghosts stories I’ve read, it is uncanny rather than overtly scary, but the creation of a wonderfully tense atmosphere is what makes The Little Stranger so utterly compelling!

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories- Angela Carter


A series of gothic narratives inspired by traditional fairytales, which, in turn, inspired my own fancy dress attire! Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast all feature here, though in a slightly different form to the conventional tales. To categorise Carter simply as a ‘feminist’ writer would be doing her a disservice; this collection of short stories is sensual, dark, and dense with the most opulent imagery. Yes, her writing is undeniably feminist in tone and plot, but it also rich, abstract and enlightening, encouraging you, whatever your gender, to explore the many nuances of human nature. Whilst fairytales are conventionally quite black and white, Carter’s stories are a vivid array of colours, constantly presenting you with alternative perspectives, catalysing multiple questions, and often offering no definite answers. They may not terrify you, but these stories are perfect for creating a suitably gothic atmosphere for the season of darkness.

Of course, there are lots of other options to explore; these are just my personal favourites. As a fan of the gothic, I’ve read the majority of the classics- The Castle of Otranto; The Monk; Dracula-, but am always on the lookout for more spine-tingling spookiness, so recommendations are welcome, whatever time of year it is!

To finish, I’ll leave you with my version of Little Red Riding Hood:

Little Red Pic

Happy Halloween!