I have a favorite wall in my house. Long, so incredibly long and filled from top to bottom with the only escape a shy child with few real friends could have. Books. Shelves and rows and stacks and piles of books. When I was 10, I would stare at this wall, carefully choosing each night where I wanted to go, to the duomos of Italy, or the depths of the forest, or the dark intentions of someone else’s mind. Shakespeare, Thoreau, Capote, every shape and size and thought was perched up on that wall, waiting to fall into my hands and my head. It was my doorway, a window to clamber out of, each word a passport to a place beyond myself. I didn’t always understand all the words, but I didn’t need to. I understood that, like me, they carried far more than themselves inside.
I remember laying on the carpet, a world spread open in front of me, reading, reading, not noticing when my neck stiffened up, not caring when my elbows ached, intent only on racing to the next word, the further chapter that would transport me from that living room and the scratchy carpet and the world that was just outside my door and far too far away.
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is a book within a book within a book, and brings you so wholly inside its borders that after the first few pages you’ve forgotten to keep track of how to get back. And, after a few more pages, you realize that you don’t want to.
When Daniel turns 10, his father swears him to secrecy and takes him the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository of books lost to the world only to be protected from the world, shut away and living on inky shelves to survive the ultimate disgrace; the world’s indifference. In this maze that echoes the recesses of the mind, Daniel finds a book. Rather, the book finds him. It’s called The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. Zafón takes us into this book, and like Daniel’s story, like the search for the center of the labyrinth, it reaches into all our dark corners, and we are compelled to investigate.
Daniel is also driven to discover what has happened to Carax, who has disappeared. No one seems to know where he is, if he lives or not, but all are certain of one thing; not only will there be no more books written, there will soon be none left. Someone is systematically hunting Carax’s books, relentlessly searching them out across the world, and burning them to cinders. Daniel’s love of this book, his connection to it and desire to find the truth of its author send him on a journey to find Carax, and to find the mysterious stranger. Daniel doesn’t know what he will do when he reaches the end of the trail, what will happen or who he will find; his search isn’t really for action, but for understanding.
But Zafón manages to pack a lot of action in the nimble twists and turns of his story. As Daniel grows from a young boy to a young man his life takes an extraordinary path. He runs down the streets of Barcelona, of his adolescence, with gritted and dangerous darkness all around him, only the solitary burning light, Carax and his book, pulsing ahead of him, guiding him. Friends and enemies and lovers emerge from the shadows, whipped into the story in a frenzy or with a gentle push. The desperate climax spreads out into the entire city and takes his future hostage, although ultimately you fear more the loss of his soul than any earthly fate.
Zafón exhales the story in measured breaths, revealing only what you need to know right at that moment to make you keep turning the pages again and again. You see the city, the story through a fog, and you push on, taking that one more step, taking in that one more word, searching for the truth, the meaning to be revealed but delighting too much in the deeply whispered journey to ever want to reach the end.
It’s no mistake that the title of the book, the title of the book within the book, the name of ourselves as that final book discovered nestled at the center of this labyrinth, combines the most ephemeral of elements. Shadows, like wind, are never in the same place for long, always searching out the next person to wrap themselves around, the further distance to find beneath them, like spectered feet of time, going from the next to the next, one to the other, until they have found us all, all our borders explored, and we are all touched, and on our way back home.