Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is one of my two favourite novels. The other is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. On the surface, these novels appear to have little in common – one is quest Fantasy, set in a mythical world, the other is a coming-of-age story set in 1940’s Spain. Where they’re similar, though, is in their origins and the reasons they were written.
Tolkien originally wrote The Hobbit for his children, a tale of adventure and hijinks meant to entertain and excite them. I much prefer it to The Lord of the Rings for its brevity, for its ability to get to the point and tell a story for storytelling’s sake.
I once saw young adult (YA) novels described as (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘Adult novels without all the crap’. I thought this a rather apt description of the oft-maligned publishing category. Though I’m ultimately a reader of adult novels, I’m drawn to YA for its hungry veracity to lay the story out before its audience, to cut out all the nuance and posturing and let the reader into its secrets, to reward them quickly for their commitment. It’s like a moped to a motorcycle: simple, little stress the reader, but ultimately enjoyable.
I like to think of The Shadow of the Wind as an evolution of this style of storytelling. It’s more drawn out than typical YA, with much of that extraneous fat and muscle added back on, but Zafon was able to draw on his experience writing YA and apply what he’d learned to craft a story that was as fable-like as the best YA. From a small cast of characters, to a youthful, zesty voice, to its ability and willingness to question the world, The Shadow of the Wind is a YA Adult novel grown up. This bumbling, awkward kid’s turned into a sophisticated gentleman.
Equally, I feel that Zafon’s second novel for adults, The Angel’s Game faltered under the weight it gained by shedding those YA roots and instead juggling a more serious tone and an emotionally labyrinthine plot. It lost that slight edge of innocence that The Shadow of the Wind possessed, traded wonder and discovery for self-loathing and mind games.
It stands to reason, then, that I was excited at the prospect of The Prince of Mist, Zafon’s first YA novel, and also his first novel at all, finally being translated into English. Through all the hullaballoo I make about The Shadow of the Wind‘s strength being in Zafon’s roots, it was time to finally see the seed that plated the tree.
The Prince of Mist is full of foreshadowing for Zafon’s later works, with many familiar themes and plot structures appearing in simplified form. Zafon again plays with dual storylines – that of young Max, his family and their new come; that of the mysteries surrounding a drowned young boy, many years earlier. As with Zafon’s other work, the present eerily mimics the past and leads to an inevitable collision as the mysteries of The Prince of Mist and his stone garden are unwoven by Max, his sister Alicia and Roland. One can also see the beginning of Zafon’s obsession with men battling over women. Max and Alicia are siblings, but there is still lament in Max as he watches his sister wooed by Roland, stolen from childhood to adolescence. The relationship between these three is the heart of the novel, and more interesting, perhaps, even than the core mysteries of the novel.
The Prince of Mist is a novel of questions. When Max and his family move to a small coastal town, nothing is as it first appears and the secrets of their new house and the mysterious inhabitants of the village soon come to the fore. Unfortunately, the answers never quite live up to the questions, with many of them shoved neatly under a carpet, forgotten about or handily dismissed midway through the novel.
Typical to Zafon, the novel unfolds slowly, with beautiful prose (wonderfully translated, again, by Lucia Graves) and it’s easy to find oneself immediately drawn into the seaside town and its mysteries. The opening line is particularly inspiring:
Max would never forget that faraway summer when, almost by chance, he discovered magic.
Somewhat disconcerting, and odd mostly in their brevity and infrequent appearance, are occurrences of Zafon switching perspectives mid-chapter, from one paragraph to the next. For example:
Praying that Alicia had not seen it, he grabbed the girl by the arm and started swimming as fast as he could toward the rowboat. Startled, she gave him a puzzled look.
“Swim to the boat! Quickly!” shouted Roland.
Alicia couldn’t understand what was happening, but there was such panic on Roland’s face that she didn’t stop to argue. Roland’s shout alerted Max, who watched his friend and Alicia swimming desperately toward him. A moment later Max noticed the dark shadow rising beneath the water.
“Dear God!” he whispered.
Though an acceptable practice, if established at the outset of the novel, It happens so infrequently that one wonders why it wasn’t eliminated by Zafon’s editor, either Spanish or English. Still, it’s a minor niggle in an otherwise lovingly written novel.
The Prince of Mist‘s greatest flaw, and one that ultimately defines it, is the ending. Sacrificing the quiet, eerie tone of the first three-quarters of the novel, the final climax is a visceral, life-threatening confrontation that completely misses the point that made the novel so successful in the first place. Rather than a disquieting twist on the established mysteries, Zafon opts for something out of a kid’s movie, with big special effects and little elegance. Top this off with a meaningless sacrifice, and you have an ending that is terribly disappointing after many promising secrets.
Still, despite completely falling off the rails in the final quarter, The Prince of Mist is an interesting, if passing, look at the foundations upon which Zafon’s success is built. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting a bit more from the novel, but in the same breath I’d use The Prince of Mist as an example of how YA (that dreaded label) doesn’t always mean ‘Only for Kids’. Zafon tackles themes and calls on imagery that will resonate with readers of all ages, and tells a story that whispers of the greater triumphs he would later write.