At the age of ten, Daniel Sempero is taken to a “forgotten cemetery of books” in Barcelona and told to choose one. It starts him on a quest that comes to determine the rest of his life…
I believe Stephen King said somewhere that he considers a story a promise to the reader: I’m promising you a good time, and I’m going to try my hardest to keep that promise when I write. If I fail, I know I tried my best.
I don’t think Zafon gave us his best. He gave us a first draft, full of hard turns that needed smoothing into corners. There were a lot of tangents we didn’t need to read because the story was strong enough without them.
In one instance, an aged nanny of an off-screen, never seen, character relates how her long-ago husband put a bag over her head when they had sex. Did that matter to the plot? No. Was it important? No. Was it in the story? Yes. Yes it was. For no reason whatsoever.
And that tangent was straight on the heels of another chapter of filler about an insane asylum where the nanny was detained. It didn’t do a thing except show Zafon had done his research, and by Harry, we were going to read it!
What it reminded me of…beginning writing guides mostly say the same thing: Compose a little backstory for every character, where they were born, who they fell in love with, etc, before you start writing. Then they go on to say leave it out of the story. The same with research. We don’t need to hear 99% of it.
The main story is set in the 1950s, but I also had trouble believing it. Characters relate details from the 1920s and 30s as though it were a few years ago, not twenty and thirty. It’s off putting as well, the fact that each of them has such perfect recall. One remembers that Carax’s father couldn’t sleep after a revelation. How would they know this?
And: How would someone know how a character smiled to the prostitutes who lived across the hall from him in 1948 or whenever? How would someone relating a story third hand know that a voice on the phone was asthmatic? It strained the narrative to a breaking point at times.
There were a lot of genres thrown into the story: Coming of age, tragedy, comedy, Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, murder mystery. Some of it even felt like a YA story. It lent the whole thing an unfocused quality that didn’t help the narrative.
It’s difficult to separate the characters from the writer sometimes. I sincerely hope that Zafon doesn’t consider women as objects to be smashed and knocked around, or that all he can see in them is sex or purity, with nothing in between. That’s all the women in this story are. It was set in the 1950s, but that doesn’t make the degradation of women easy to read.
And they have no internal lives except as mirrors that reflect the men around them. For example, a woman goes to Paris. She doesn’t marvel at the Metro, or visit the Eiffel Tower. She’s only complete there because a man is with her, and when she leaves, she’s incomplete. And remains so until, again, a man fills her life. Another ends up a desolate aging divorcee who has no life without a man in it. The woman who becomes Dan’s wife is the only one who seems to have a mind of her own.
Every character is torn apart from loneliness and isolation, pushing them to melodrama and desperate acts. It’s fine for the story, but everyone seemed to have their dials up to eleven all the time. Almost every motion and scene felt like the characters were chewing the scenery.
Dan remained the shallowest character throughout the story, a passive player…there wasn’t much depth to him beyond a horny teenager. Comic relief Fermin and the villain Fumero were the strongest. In fact, I was as terrified of psychopathic Fumero as the characters were. Whenever he appeared, he’d invoke a physical reaction of dread.
Counter balancing all this are moments of great beauty, powerful writing and wonderful descriptive passages. Zafon knows how to write weather so well that you feel it on your skin. In the last pages, a character opens a new book and “inhales the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books”. Beautiful. “Books are mirrors that reflect what we already are.” Someone says (Significant, then, that Fumero the villain has so few).
There are three more of these Forgotten Cemetery books, but I suspect they might all be essentially the same narrative voice and tangents, so I won’t be adding them to my TBR any time soon. Run them through an editor first, and then let me know when you have.
(She’s still not a pancake, by the way!)
She’s always fun to read with, and I’m proud to call her my friend. She spots things I never notice, and vice-versa! It’s like reading a book with someone else’s brain.
And I don’t mean that in a trivial way.
She saw things I completely missed, like the sexism and the degradation of women throughout the story. I think that says a lot about how densenitised I am to it that I didn’t notice. But once she pointed it out, I realised how prevalent it was.
I’ve walked in Becky’s shoes for a while and caught a glimpse of the red flags she must see every day, flags I never realised were waving.
Because I’m a male, I don’t have to live in a world where every gesture I make or clothes I pick at random can be construed as something sexual or provocative. I’m sorry the women of the world have to live in a world like that. I’m sorry that I’ve let things like that pass without noticing them.
What particularly stuck with me was a rape scene she mentioned that I (and the story) just breezed over…but it caught in her mind.
Seeing the world through her eyes with this buddy read has been a learning experience for me and one I’m going to be considering for a long time.