Monday, 28 April 2014

Review: 'The Watcher in the Shadows' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I have an absolute passion for anything written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which is well-known to most who know me which is why I usually get his books as presents when they come out. This one was given to me over Christmas and I didn't get around to reading it till now (shame on me).
A mysterious toymaker who lives as a recluse in an old mansion, surrounded by the mechanical beings he has created enigma surrounding strange lights that shine through the mists that envelop the small island on which the old lighthouse stands...a shadowy creature that hides deep in the woods...these are the elements of a mystery that bind will bind 14-year-old Irene to Ismael during one magical summer spent in the Blue Bay. He mother has taken a job as a housekeeper for the toymaker, Lazarus, but his house contains more secrets than Irene and Ishmael have bargained for.
This book is part of Zafon's Niebla series which also includes The Prince of Mist and The Midnight Palace, the first of which I've also read. These are the books he has written for a younger audience, yet they are equally infused with the Gothic style which makes The Cemetery of Forgotten Books such an amazing series. Unlike that serie, this one isn't set in Barcelona but in the French and Spanish countrysides, which provides a breath of fresh air from Barcelona's well-known alleys and mansions where everyone somehow is linked to everyone else. Although aimed at teenagers, Zafon doesn't hold back with his imagery, which I personally think is a good thing. Children aren't stupid and they shouldn't be treated as such, least of all by literature which is supposed to be a part of their growing up. The main characters here are also teenagers, between fourteen and sixteen, and most of the time they behave like teenagers as well. Although the love that blossoms between Irene and Ishmael might seem unlikely, Zafon manages to write it in such a way it is like a 'magical summer'. There is no large sweeping romance that last for all eternity, but rather an experience that binds them together through memories that might eventually unite them again.

Something I mentioned in my review last week of Zafon's The Count of Parnass, is that his origins as screenwriter are very visible. The imagery he creates is incredible. Although all of it is fantastical and magical, there is something incredibly horrifying yet true about a lot of the beings he writes. However, the book kind of feels like a film at times as well. We jump from one scare to the next, from one terrifying description to the other, and the breathers in between are practically non-existent or very clearly set-ups for the next big scene. Although the beginning of the book takes the time it needs to set up its characters and their surroundings, afterwards anything not immediately related to the plot gets thrown out. There are no light moments, no evening dinners at which everything appears normal although everyone knows it isn't etc. This means that the realism is slightly lacking in the magical realism of this book. But it is a beautifully written book where the language itself makes up for the potential lack in grounding.

I give this book...

3 Universes.

I would recommend it to fans of Spanish magical realism and to Gothic literature fans. There is something spectacular about how Zafon creates magic out of thin air, much like his characters. Would I reread it? Potentially yes, but not for some time. The imagery is one of the main draws of Zafon's novels and although the plot here is interesting, it isn't explored the way it is in his adult novels.

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