This novel begins with a visit to an amazingly evocative location. A father takes his ten-year-old son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret labyrinth visited and maintained by Barcelona’s second-hand booksellers. Daniel must choose a book to treasure and keep with him all his life. He chooses a novel written by Julián Carax, an author who has disappeared and whose books have been sought out and destroyed by a strange, shadowy figure named after a character from one of Carax's novels - a character who represents the devil. Thus begins a tale of intrigue, love, hate and most of all, obsession.
There is so much I love about this work. In many ways it reads like a Victorian sensationalist novel: lots and lots of words, multiple twists and turns in the plot, strange characters, mystery, suspense, gothic elements, melodrama and sentimentality. There are some wonderful characters, in particular Fermin Romero de Torres, whose humour, loyalty, intelligence, resourcefulness and ability to come up with snappy one-liners for every occasion made me fall in love with him. The novel is full of quotable quotes, especially about books and reading. In addition, Zafón gives the novel a great sense of time and place. I’ve never been to Barcelona, but I felt like I was right there during the dark days of the Civil War and during the time of the fascist regime which followed, walking its streets, meeting its people, smelling its smells and seeing its sights.
The novel has some weaknesses. Some of the mystery was predictable and I worked out a couple of the major plot points before the big reveal. Not all of them though; so that while I could see where the narrative was heading at about the half way point, I didn’t predict exactly how it was going to be resolved. In addition, part of the narrative (which is developed from the point of view of a number of different characters) is in the form of a very long letter written by one character to another. This section is almost all exposition and, while it advances the narrative, it is less compelling than other parts of the novel. In addition, a few of the things the writer of the letter discloses seem to be beyond what the writer could have known, which is a little jarring.
Making up for any weaknesses in the middle section of the novel is a truly page-turning final section and a very satisfying ending. Or at least, it wasn’t literally a page-turning final section for me, as I listened to the audiobook edition of the novel. However, it made for totally compelling listening. The narration, by Daniel Philpott, is excellent. The translation, by Lucia Graves, is also excellent. At any rate, I presume it’s an excellent translation, as there was no point at which this felt like a novel which had not been originally written in clear, idiomatic English.
As noted above, this novel starts with a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I feel like I have a Cemetery of Forgotten Books in my home. Although I obtained the audiobook to listen to relatively recently, I found the paperback version of this novel on a bookshelf in my bedroom a few weeks ago. It has clearly been there for some time, as the sticker on the back indicates that it was bought at Dubai Airport. If it was purchased by me – and I have no memory of having done so – then that would have happened in 2004, as I haven’t been to Dubai Airport since then. It may have been purchased by someone else and given to me, but I also have no memory of that occurring. Regardless of how I obtained it, I’m very glad I decided to pick up this novel from my Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I’m going to remember it for a long time.
This gets 4 ½ stars for now, just because there are a few weaknesses in the writing. However, if the characters hang around in my head the way I think they might, that could change to 5 stars. Highly recommended, but only for readers who like lots of words and who can cope with over-the-top melodrama.