I couldn’t decide on Monday whether or not I would have more to say about this book when I finished it. Part of me felt certain I would just toss it aside, ready to check another book off of my ever-growing “To Read” list, but essentially unmoved by the strangeness of the story.
I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I often joke with my husband that I was lucky to have met him because he is always graciously right while I’m often enthusiastically mistaken, and together, we quite happily wind our way to the truth of things over time. I find I am most happy to be proven wrong when it comes to books, and with this book, I was definitely most joyfully mistaken.
This was a novel I took on out of a sense of obligation to the unread collection on my shelf (I know I’m not the only one to have a shelf like this, heavy with the best of intentions, but mostly abandoned for more familiar, comfortable pages), and in the beginning, although I found it fascinating, and the writer unbelievably talented, I wasn’t moved by it as I sometimes can be.
I crave those books that shift something in my soul though, that lay limply in my lap for long minutes after I’ve finished them. They’re usually not the books that make me laugh, or even those that I reread a dozen times; they may not even be my favorites, but they have this power to change a part of me forever. Most often the books that have the most profound effect on me are the most melancholy. They lay bare the parts of life that I don’t like to dwell on. Those stories produce characters that chill me while impressing upon me the importance of the choices I make every day. They remind me of the very worst parts of myself, and of the experiences I’ve had, but they also, crucially, remind me of the two things required to survive such circumstances – grit and compassion.
The grit, I believe, is what comes easiest for most people. The desire to survive is so strongly embedded in us that we can endure a great deal before we collapse or surrender. We are able to withstand devastation far beyond what we might think we’re capable of; in fact, we often find that our strength has been hiding in the darkness all along, and what we needed was for something beyond our control to allow us to venture out and find it. Once found, that strength is, not undefeatable, of course, but always within our reach. Having found the source, it becomes easier over time to draw from the well and fight the battles we must.
It’s much harder to maintain a sense of compassion when faced with those same tests. We might find ourselves able to survive, but parts of ourselves start to get broken off, destroyed by the choices we make in the process. One of the things I find so wonderful about this book is that even in the depths of tragedy (and by the end, they surely have plumbed those depths thoroughly) most of the characters, broken though they may be by the circumstances they find themselves in, have salvaged much of the kindness Fate has tried to rob from them.
I admit, I don’t like hard stories where the only survivors live in worlds constructed of their own guilt or malice or loneliness. Reality is eager enough to push those awful words into me every day on the news or in history books, and I’m just too much of a sponge to take it; if I spend a lot of time immersed in sadness or horror, it seeps through me and I start to feel helpless against the tide of all the things I can’t change. I don’t like feeling that way. I would rather believe that even small good things I do might influence the wider community. I like imagine other people doing the same, carrying on the fight against the darkness one kind word or gesture at a time.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón gets it. His book is filled with ordinary people trying to stem the tide of degradation and hatred through small, compassionate acts. Yes, the overarching story is a sad one, but it’s buoyed by a lightness that just cannot be denied.