I’d begun to see this book as something of a nemesis, since I tried to read it once, really struggled with it, beat myself up about it for days and days, then finally gave in at a really low point at 3am when I couldn’t face reading one more page.
So now, after a suitable interval in which the trauma could fade, I was glad to find that the problem was very much with me and not the book. At the time I’d been exhausted and unwell, and it took me a while to see that what I needed was an old comfort read, not a new book with an unfamiliar style and a million characters who all had extremely similar-sounding Spanish names. On my second attempt I could enjoy this for what it is – a paean to the novel, and a literary mystery story that spans decades and has the death of a reclusive author at its heart. Think The DaVinci Code, but led by a teenager and not written so badly.
The action is fast paced for the most part, and the characters very likeable. Daniel Sempere is well drawn as a teenage boy who mostly follows the rules, and his kind, wise book shop owning father is trying his best to look after Daniel. Their book shop assistant, Fermin Romero de Torres is a very memorable character, who provides some much needed comic relief among all the intrigue and suspicion and visits from odd, masked strangers.
It’s not a short book, and I did find that on some days I had to sit down and make myself finish the pages I wanted to read. The problem wasn’t really the story itself, but the long, distracting descriptions. For instance, there’s one moment where two characters are heading toward a building, and for several pages we are treated to a blow by blow account of the house since it was built. All we actually needed to know was that a certain family used to live there, they’re all dead now, and the house is a bit creepy. It was the same with characters; several of them would get a four page history and background, and then barely appear in the novel again. In some ways this was good, because it added colour and variety, but on the other hand I felt that the story could have been told with about 100 less pages.
All in all, though, I really enjoyed this. It wasn’t what I would usually read, which is great, and the story has definitely stuck with me. I don’t think it would make number 14 in my own personal 100, but I can appreciate the charm that led so many people to rate it so highly.