First let me say that I enjoyed this book well enough and was, again and again, willing to forgive technical issues that leapt off the page because, yes, Zafon has a lovely turn of phrase and, yes, the opening of the book is utterly enchanting and, yes, the mystery of who Carax is pulled me in and kept me reading. But I honestly wonder if the effusive critics only read the first half because, for me, it finally fell apart about two thirds of the way through – and, frankly, I could see it coming because it was a structural mess from the start.
The book is written in the first person, which is often fine for mysteries but, unfortunately, the protagonist is not a policeman, nor a private eye, nor even old enough to do much investigation beyond finding people who will tell him things – at length, in narrative, and often including information they, themselves could not possibly have had access to, particularly in such detail. About a third of the way through, Zafon gives up the lengthy dialogue and just launches into our protagonist telling us what he’d been told but, again, at length, in narrative, and often including information they, themselves could not possibly have had access to, particularly in such detail. Eventually, he gives up even the pretence of trying to stick to his chosen narrative perspective and we get a 90 page manuscript from another character, which is also in first person, except when it’s not, and which contains in it so much of what we already knew that I wondered if this had been the authors original treatment for the story and, lost for a way to work in the small amount of crucial new information, he’d decided to shove the whole thing in.
I know this is not only a mystery story, and I did enjoy the stories framing it – particularly that of Fermin, and the political aspects – but the mystery was the heart of it and the way it was presented just smacked of an author without the tools to structure it properly – perhaps he hasn’t read enough non-literary, mystery books. In fact, a lack of exposure to popular media may also explain why, when the ‘big revelation’ comes (don’t worry, no spoilers) it is such a disappointment – I had thrice picked it but dismissed it as being the plot of a daytime soap opera, not an acclaimed literary novel.
Overall, it’s a nice read, especially at the beginning, but a good structural editor might have helped to make it the great book everyone seems to say it is – but don’t mind me, I’m just one of those people that thinks there’s more to good writing than a lovely turn of phrase and an enchanting idea.