Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s readers devour words and slip through hours until finally, in one glutinous sitting, they turn the last page of his latest bestseller. The Watcher in the Shadows is Zafon’s third attempt at writing for young adult readers, and in it he indulges all of his fictional throes – but with some consequence.
Famous for melodrama, romance and quickening suspense our story typically begins with an enigmatic love letter, a tragedy in Paris, and a reclusive toymaker called Lazarus Jann. Intriguing mystery and some ever slight nuances of the new literary gothic all come into play here as we slowly delve into the life of Lazarus. However, the further the Sauvelle family peer behind his mansion of whimsical automatons, the further they fall into the dark, molten shadows of his forgotten past. When former secrets come into the light, murder, danger and unsolved perplexities soon follow, and it is up to the young Irene Sauvelle to figure out exactly what Lazarus is trying to hide.
Zafon’s writing flaunts itself unsparingly, spinning twists and turns in a seamless narrative that leaves us clutching for the next moment of revelation. This is further escalated through bewitching fantasies of phantoms and automatonic ghosts which climatically lurch the novel to inspired heights.
However, The Watcher in the Shadows does have its drawbacks. There are times in Zafon’s writing, though imaginative and gripping, which can’t quite place itself within the finite genre of young adult fiction. Perhaps over-reaching his own writing style, Zafon’s authorial characterisations loses its teenage audience and accidently shifts its appeal towards more mature readers.
His young heroes, Irene and Ismael, therefore come across gushy and undeveloped, playing out a flat-liner love story too drab even for the most avid of young readers. Unintentionally, Zafon’s novel grows into the world of adults, of Lazarus Jann and Simone Sauvelle, who Zafon notably fosters more and more in the latter half of his story. This indecisive tug in character development is interminably defeating and the novel’s most daring moments are lost in a thick black hole of arguable uncertainty. But, even if The Watcher in the Shadows does not stand a chance against Zafon’s former glories, it is still a novel that has idiosyncratic moments of magical ambiguity and wonder. When he gets it right, The Watcher in the Shadows is a novel we devour whole, but when he stumbles into genre fiction, adult and young adult readers alike are left with a wishy-washy aftertaste.