I absolutely adored reading this, it has to be up there as one of my favourite books, I felt lost when I finished it. I had read it many years before but didn't remember that much of it and I don't think it grabbed me as much then as it did now, which is strange as it has really captured my imagination reading it this time.
I absolutely adored reading this, it has to be up there as one of my favourite books, I felt lost when I finished it. I had read it many years before but didn’t remember that much of it and I don’t think it grabbed me as much then as it did now, which is strange as it has really captured my imagination reading it this time.
The book is set in 1950s Barcelona, and I had to keep breaking off to look up places mentioned, such as Montjuic Cemetery (which sounds an incredibly interesting, if somewhat macabre, place, and I looked at photos of it with winding rows of tombs with photos, with over million burials and cremations there and it being a “vast city of the dead that scaled the slope to the very top”) and The Ramblas (which I don’t imagine is as atmospheric now as it was then, but I always see it in my mind with those old-fashioned sepia kind of colours), and it seemed to me that Barcelona is as much of a character in the book as Daniel and Julian are, I can’t imagine it being set anywhere else so atmospheric, he describes the city with such beautiful descriptive words, and Barcelona feels crucial to the setting with its history and buildings and architecture. I wonder if the street and building names are still there, I feel I could happily make a pilgrimage of all the places mentioned in this book!
The story is about Daniel’s obsession to find out about the life of the author of a book he finds, but this author, Julian, seems to have had a tragic and unhappy life, and Daniel seems to be following the same pattern as Julian. There are also several nasty characters who seem determined to prevent Daniel gaining information about Julian, and lots of people that are not as they seem. It is set during the Civil War, so there’s also a backdrop of uneasiness and intimidation. The history of Julian’s mother and father is really sad and tragic, as is Daniel’s admission to himself that aiming to solve the mystery of Julian is connected to his belief that this will bring back the memory of his dead mother. It is fascinating how Julian’s and Daniel’s lives mirror each other with both involved with rich families, both secretly involved with the daughter of these families, and Julian’s enemies becoming Daniel’s enemies, and both owning that fascinating pen (!). There are also so many connections between people, Fumero and Julian and Moliner and Aldaya, all connected at school and with their lives and paths and destinies and tragedies intertwined. Delicious suspense with Daniel going down into the crypt at the Aldaya Mansion and finding the two graves, and then someone else being there! And the line “In seven days’ time, I would be dead”, what a suspenseful line to read about the main character!! There is also lots of mystery and tension and surprises, one example being Miquel Moliner’s role in the story, which was much bigger and more crucial than was first hinted at as he saves Julian’s life as a boy when Fumero tries to shoot him, then he plots to help Julian and Penelope escape, he also pays to have Julian’s books published, and he is the connection with Nuria though this is complicated as Nuria loves Julian but this love isn’t returned and Miquel loves Nuria but this love isn’t returned, Miquel then sacrifices himself and saves Julian’s life again by taking Julian’s identity and being killed as him, although this doesn’t fool Fumero. And the tension of Nuria Monfort dead and Fermin accused of her murder. And a huge surprise that Penelope and Julian were brother and sister (omg!!!), and the visit to the hat shop being all engineered by Aldaya to become involved with his son. Learning that Clara’s father died at Fumero’s hands, and Fumero was involved from the very start of the story and all the way through, and it seems that all this tragedy is partly caused by his frustration and bitterness and jealousy, he hates Julian and wants him dead, and he convinces Aldaya to want Julian dead too, oooh, the unsettling sinisterness of Fumero and the power and control he has and what he represents, ie Franco and the dictatorship and the corruption of power, really stayed in my mind as he is so intimidating and scary, and scarier because all this is essentially true and things like this happened during the Civil War under Franco’s dictatorship and there were horrible people like Fumero, he seems to dominate the book with being connected to the past and Julian, and the present and Daniel. The surprise that the burned man is Julian, who has killed Aldaya and assumed Moliner’s identity, at Moliner’s urging, and he is burning his books until he meets Daniel and feels an affinity with him. And the tension of Bea running away to the Aldaya mansion when she discovers she is pregnant, meeting Julian there and him realising that this means that Daniel will come there too and inadvertently bring Fumero, such suspense in that scene with the dark house and shadows, unsure who will live and die and all the time bearing in mind Daniel’s words earlier that he will be dead in seven days, and the drama of Daniel being shot but surviving, and Julian killing Fumero by throwing him onto the sunken statue in the fountain (I was exhausted afterwards!). The story is deliciously complicated and involved, and I kept flicking back to re-read bits and tie the puzzle together, particularly Father Ramos’ story of the boys at school and Moliner’s part in that, and Nuria’s telling of events which proves false/incomplete, and Penelope’s letter to Julian that he never received. This is the kind of book you want to immediately re-read once you’ve finished, in order to tie up all the loose ends and clues.
I did wonder who named Penelope’s son David though, as wasn’t Penelope dead when the door was opened and why would her disapproving parents bother to name the child they were so disgusted at? Or did Julian name him, although that would mean he did the burying of them?
I also wished we could have had a detailed telling of Julian’s Shadow of the Wind book, “the story of a man in search of his real father… a ghostly odyssey in which the protagonist struggled to recover his lost youth… the shadow of a cursed love slowly surfaced to haunt him until his dying breath”. It sounds a fascinating book.
And of course, one of the most memorable and tantalising aspects of the book is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books which seems like a version of heaven to me, I think once you read about it and can imagine it then you can never let it go and it’s always wistfully and wishfully in your mind! And a nice touch that Fermin becomes the keeper of Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
I did completely love this book, it reminded me of a Dickens’ book with the beautiful descriptions and also the way that everyone turns out to be connected. It also reminded me of one of Wilkie Collins’ gothic novels. It really does read like a book from their time.
And I’m still so affected by the beautiful and powerfully descriptive words in this book, I am in awe of this man’s writing, I need to read all of his books. There are so many phrases I want to keep in mind and I couldn’t help jotting them down to savour:
“A story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise”.
“The art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day”.
Such a beautiful description of a father: “A man with a head, a heart, and a soul. A man capable of listening, of leading and respecting a child, and not of drowning his own defects in him. Someone whom a child will not only love because he’s his father but will also admire for the person he is. Someone he would want to grow up to resemble”.
And about love: “Sometimes what matters isn’t what one gives but what one gives up”.
“Julian lived in his books…his soul is in his stories”. “So if somebody wanted to destroy him, he’d have to destroy those stories and those characters”. Ooooh, deliciously gothic and intense!
“And then I would think about the war and about the fact that those who waged it had also been children once”.
“This city is a sorceress…it gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it”.
“The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, whether through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and soon they burn his soul”. Wow – bit of a tear-jerker that phrase, powerful but beautiful!