Book Review: The Watcher in the Shadows

Thursday 8 January 2015 by

The Watcher in the Shadows, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Phoenix, Orion, BookThe Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Published by Phoenix

A mysterious toymaker who lives as a recluse in an old mansion, surrounded by the mechanical beings he has created… an enigma surrounding strange lights that shine through the mists that envelop the small island on which the old lighthouse stands… a shadowy creature that hides deep in the woods… these are the elements of a mystery that bind 14-year-old Irene to Ismael during one magical summer spent in the Blue Bay. Irene’s mother has taken a job as a housekeeper for the toymaker, Lazarus, but his house contains more secrets than Irene and Ishmael have bargained for.

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We all know how much I love Zafón’s writing, whether it be Young Adult or the modern classic The Shadow of the Wind. This latest book, The Watcher in the Shadows is his new foray in to Young Adult writing. It tells the story of a mysterious toymaker who hires a single mother to care for his home. But what occurs is not at all normal; Zafón delivers another masterpiece of supernatural fiction, with the wavering doubt between what’s real and what isn’t, right until the grand conclusion.

Before I launch in to the review, can we just take a moment to admire the new jacket designs for his books? I have an old edition of The Shadow of the Wind, but am tempted to get another copy in this new jacket style! I love the art deco feel of the text and trim, and the depth of the images, and Watcher has one of my favourite jackets of all. Bravo.

But, to review the actual content of the book… I enjoy the simplicity of Zafón’s Young Adult work – its pared-down style makes it smooth reading, and his balances the fine line between writing for a younger audience and avoiding patronising them with absolute ease. Of all the Young Adult and children’s fiction I have read, I have found his to be some of the most accessible to adults.

You get a strong sense of the writer’s voice, but he lets his characters shine, which means it has the comfort of returning to an old friend with every book, but also the fresh joy of finding new characters to unearth. In this book, in particular, the characters are very different to any previous he has written, and that gives it a sparky feel, like a writer discovering a whole new way to write. The family are compelling heroes, and the toymaker makes a fantastic adversary, right to the moment that you find out whether or not he is evil, misguided or protector. It’s a smart play of characters.

I was a little unsure of the romance in this book, feeling that it was just an afterthought to a much better mystery tale. Nothing seemed to come of it, and it seemed a bit superfluous. And I would have liked to spend more time with the mother, as she seemed to be one of the most intriguing characters. But the most fatal flaw for this book is its length – it could have been twice as long with ease and without losing any of its effect. I feel like it was kept short to be in keeping with the assumptions about the audience (there is a great trend for short books when writing for a younger audience), rather than any benefit to the plot itself. There were large swathes of it that could have had more page-time, or seemed to be completely missing.

Some of Zafón’s best work comes from his ability to bring setting to life, and this is no different. The toymakers mansion is like something out of a horror film, and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. There is a large part of me that hopes he will revisit it in future writing.

If you are looking for a quick adventure with lashings of the supernatural, The Watcher in the Shadows is the perfect book for you. It is warmly inoffensive, with all the talent of a great writer behind it. For what it lacks in startling poetic beauty, it makes up for in clever antagonists and a fast-paced conclusion that keeps you hooked. I am always a fan of Zafón, and it is rare that he disappoints. I am pleased to say that he does himself justice once again.

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