Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS
For years I’ve been working my way through one of these “A hundred books everyone should read in their lifetime” lists that someone tagged me in on Facebook years ago when that was still a cool thing to do. This list, like many of its ilk, is severely lacking in diversity so I am not rushing through the list but as a list lover I am still determined to finish it. One of the books on this list is The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I was ready to be intrigued by this book, a mystery set in post-civil war Barcelona and indeed there were parts I liked. The discussion of the civil war and the aftermath is intriguing and thoughtful and the pain and suffering of living in Barcelona and Spain during that time is raw and believable. There are truly funny moments and the main characters are well developed and interesting. The resolution of the mystery is a bit long-winded and sometimes, arguably, unnecessary. Even I, a person wholly uncapable of solving literary mysteries, had figured out the end. That’s not a complaint necessarily, because The Shadow of The Wind is an homage to the gothic novel, right down to the creepy, abandoned and possibly cursed mansion and the troubled women within, to the dark lurking figures and violent villains. But it’s the women that present the problem. Perhaps I am thinking more critically about these things because we are in a cultural moment where women’s stories are more centred than ever, and we are finally taking control of abuse narratives. Whatever the reason, here’s the problem as I see it, the women in the novel lack volition or desires of their own. In the first part of the novel we meet Daniel, then only a boy who after finding a mysterious book meets Clara, a beautiful and blind young woman. Young Daniel is smitten but over the years the two develop a friendship. Daniel remains in love with her throughout his adolescence evening abandoning his childhood best friend to spend time with her. But she does not return his feelings and when he walks in on her having sex with someone else their friendship ends. In the final pages of the novel, the narrator makes sure to tell us that Clara is aging and bitter and has a failed marriage under her belt. She, supposedly, longs for the admiration and boyish love of Daniel. But why do we need to know this at all? The narrator never really tells us anything about Clara, she’s beautiful and vapid like the rest of the female characters in the book and so she deserves to be “punished”. She deserves this punishment for treating the main character as a friend and not a lover, an unforgivable sin. And what is her punishment anyway, a divorce and age? Things that happen to many and all of us, respectively. Why would she become a bitter older woman unless youth, beauty and marriage are the only things that can possibly matter to women? The other women don’t fare much better. There’s Bea, Daniel’s later conquest who we first learn about as, yes, you guessed it, vapid and beautiful and unsure of what she wants. Luckily Daniel shows her and after they get to know each other in the Biblical sense she falls ill. Of course, she is pregnant like another character who the same fate has befallen. The story within a story structure draws explicit parallels between our protagonist Daniel and the mysterious author he is obsessed with, Julian Carax. Like Daniel, Juilan comes from a working-class background and was in love with a beautiful woman. I want to say she was described as vapid too, but we don’t even get to find out that much about her. After they have sex she becomes pregnant and Julian flees to Paris after her father attempts to send him to the army. Later we find out she dies in childbirth as her father refused to get a doctor. Unlike Julian, Daniel has the ability to change the course of his life and that of his unborn child by marrying Bea and starting a life together. That’s all well and good, if not particularly feminist, but completely missing from this story are the women’s desires or even personalities. The mystery of the novel can’t be separated from the treatment of women. Julian becomes a writer and later a disturbed and mysterious figure because of the loss of his young love. But the women only exist as fuel for the men’s desires and their suffering the fuel for their art and their actions. Yes, they consent to the sexual activity but that’s all we learn of them. Their hopes and dreams, what they could have become if they were allowed, these ideas aren’t even entertained. That Daniel and Julian in their romantic turmoil abandon and destroy friendships and destroy or alter the lives of the women they purport to care about, even leading to the death of another character, Nuria, is presented without criticism is another oversight. Like so many other books women exist merely to be acted upon and only through their conquest can the men become who they are and the story take shape.