About the author:
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of six novels, including the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind, and The Angel's Game. His work has been published in more than forty different languages, and honoured with numerous international awards. He divides his time between Barcelona, Spain, and Los Angeles, California.
Very good (8/10)
The Watcher in the Shadows is Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s third novel for younger readers written in the 1990s. It’s a dark and complex coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of a small French town on the coast of Normandy. The atmosphere is rich, Gothic and sinister, bringing to mind Ann Radcliffe and Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale Olalla.
The story of The Watcher in the Shadows takes place during the summer of 1937 in the eve of the Second World War. After her father’s death, fourteen-year-old Irene Sauvelle moves with her family to Blue Bay on the coast of Normandy when her mother takes a job as a housekeeper for the enigmatic toymaker, Lazarus Jann. There, she meets a local boy named Ishmael, and the two soon fall in love. But a dark mystery is about to unfold, threatening the happiness and safety of the Sauvelles.
As strange lights shine through the fog surrounding a small, barren island, Irene's younger brother dreams of a dark creature hidden deep in the forest. And when a young girl is found murdered, her body at the end of a path torn through the woods by a monstrous, inhuman force, Irene and Ishmael wonder – has a demonic presence been unleashed on the inhabitants of Blue Bay? Together, they’ll have to survive the most terrifying summer of their lives, as they try to piece together the many mysteries and secrets hidden in a town torn apart by tragedy, amidst a labyrinth of lights and shadows.
Haunting and elegantly written, The Watcher in the Shadows is a novel that would appeal to both children and adults. Ruiz Zafón is a master of creating atmosphere and giving his readers just enough details to fuel the fire of their imagination. The story is carefully paced, focusing equally on the mystery and horror elements of the plot, and on the characters’ emotional landscape. The author also makes a point of giving Irene’s mother, Simone Sauvelle, and the toymaker Lazarus Jann their own story arc. Personally, I found that refreshing, considering how often ‘parents’ are kept in the background in novels for younger readers.
Another aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed was how the mystery was structured. The book opens with an extract from a letter addressed to Irene, which sets up the premise and hints at things to come. From there on, Ruiz Zafón uses diary entries, newspaper clippings, and stories told by the characters within the main narrative in which they are actors to build up the mythology. However, it’s up to the reader to fuse together the parts and guess how much is truth and how much a misdirection. Thus the book unfolds almost like a puzzle, inviting us to speculate and search for answers together with the protagonists of the plot.
As a side note, there’s one particular story about a watchmaker in Berlin, told by Lazarus Jann, that I completely fell in love with. The plot is ingenious, the twist is diabolical, and the villain is scary and clever, in a Machiavellian kind of way. It only proves how good a storyteller Carlos Ruiz Zafón is.
Unfortunately, not everything in The Watcher in the Shadows works as well as the aforementioned story within the story. For one, there isn't much character growth throughout the book. Secondly, the main antagonist, once revealed, is sort of a let down. Or rather, he/it feels more like the quintessential right-hand man of a bad guy than like a proper villain.
Last but not least, the climax of the story is too long for its own good. The final showdown, in particular, goes on and on, following one daring escape after another, to the point where you start wondering – how are the characters still alive? Don’t misunderstand me; I know The Watcher in the Shadows is a novel for younger readers and didn't expect it to play out like an operatic tragedy. In fact, I may be one of the few readers left who prefer a happy ending. But not when it means that the antagonist all of a sudden inexplicably loses half his power, or his cunning.
That said, I admit that despite its shortcomings I still enjoyed the ending. Ruiz Zafón has an eye for fine details and successfully combines them to give classic tropes new life.
The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a memorable and haunting novel that will keep you awake late into the night. It’s pleasantly written and portrays sympathetic but faulted characters who must overcome great odds. The setting is imaginative and Gothic, and would appeal to fans of young adult Victorian mysteries, fantasy and horror. The novel’s not perfect by any means, but it’s highly enjoyable and would leave you wanting to read more of the author’s works. That much I can promise you.