Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Indian orphan is haunted by his past in a most unusual way

The wait for books to be translated and released in a market other than the one in which it originated can be extremely frustrating.  Beyond the time it takes the translator to actually do the work of translating and regionalizing the material, there's extra layers of copyright and quality control that has to be attended to as well.  Anyone who has waited for a beloved anime or manga to make it to their own country, even after the rights have been picked up, knows this pain all too well,  But occasionally, the anticipation makes the results all the more enjoyable.  Such is the case with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books, including his newest American release, The Midnight Palace.

This is more of a Stephen King style horror novel than the previously released The Prince of Mists. While there is still some introspection, as well as a supernatural villain, the majority of the book feels like a traditional supernatural thriller instead of the 'magical realism' that his adult books are so well known for.  

Our main character Ben is separated from his twin sister at birth and left at an orphanage in Calcutta.  His parents were killed by a man filled with almost unspeakable evil, and he wants to finish the job by killing the children as well.  This man's name is Jawahal, and after a brief meeting with the head of the orphanage, he promises to be back.

Ben must have been left at the best orphanage in Calcutta, because when we meet him again 16 years later, he's a fairly well-educated young man about to venture into adulthood.  He's made a group of friends and comrades-in-arms that go by The Chowbar Society, in the fashion of children's secret societies everywhere.  The members are fairly typical, from a bookish boy who wants to become a doctor (our narrator) to the spunky girl who wants to become a famous actress.  Ben is the adventurous type, but still prone to quiet spells, and everyone turns to him automatically as the leader of the group.

The story picks up as the members of the Chowbar Society are starting to age out of the orphanage.  Ian leaves first, on a ticket to medical school purchased by his friends.  That night, an old woman with a 16 year old girl come to talk to the headmaster, and history catches up with everyone.  We quickly learn the tale of Ben's origins, Seere's life growing up as something of a gypsy, and the origin of the man known as Jawahal.  But nothing in the ancient city of Calcutta is ever exactly how it seems

There is much to discover about Ben's father, his unfinished dream house, his distinguished career as a modern architect, and the mysterious Jawahal who brought it all down in a sea of flames.

To say anything more about the plot would ruin the joy of discovering it, so let's leave it there.

The actual prose of thee book is quite lovely.  This is one of Ruiz Zafon's earlier works, long before the amazing The Shadow of the Wind or The Angel's Game, so it's not quite as polished as those.  But even this early on, Ruiz Zafon knows how to pace a story properly and how to hide bits of information from the reader to reveal later without the reader feeling cheated.  While classified as Young Adult, The Midnight Palace will certainly please readers of all ages with its lovely characters and supernatural horror plot.

Highs:  Ruiz Zafon captures perfectly the magical, sad night at the end of youth when you realize you'll never see some of your best childhood friends again

Lows:  Several members of The Chowbar Society are very generic and not fleshed out well at all, probably due to length constraints

Verdict:  A great, scary read perfect for either the beach or a cozy chair

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