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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón (b. 1964)

Translator: Lucia Graves (b. 1943)

First published: Las luces de septiembre, 1995, in Spain (English trans., 2012)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy; Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1936–47

Locale: France

Principal characters

Irene Sauvelle, a fourteen-year-old girl

Simone Sauvelle ...

(The entire section contains 1041 words.)

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Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón (b. 1964)

Translator: Lucia Graves (b. 1943)

First published: Las luces de septiembre, 1995, in Spain (English trans., 2012)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy; Historical Fiction

Time of plot: 1936–47

Locale: France

Principal characters

Irene Sauvelle, a fourteen-year-old girl

Simone Sauvelle, her widowed mother

Dorian Sauvelle, her younger brother

Lazarus Jann, her mother's employer, a wealthy toymaker

Alexandra Alma Maltisse Jann, Lazarus's wife

Hannah, Lazarus's fifteen-year-old cook

Ismael, a sailor, Hannah's cousin

The Story

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's fantasy novel The Watcher in the Shadows is set in the mid-1930s to 1940s on the Normandy coast of France. It begins in Paris, in 1936. Armand Sauvelle has died and left his family—his wife, Simone, daughter, Irene, and son, Dorian—in poverty. They move into a tiny apartment, and Irene takes work at a dance hall, dancing with forlorn soldiers for pennies. Then the Sauvelles have a stroke of luck: Simone is offered a job as a housekeeper in a tiny coastal village in Normandy called Blue Bay. Her employer, the kind but eccentric Lazarus Jann, is a toymaker. He lives in a Gothic mansion called Cravenmoore, full of twisting hallways, murals, intricate carvings, and an army of automaton toys that Lazarus has fashioned in his workshop. But Lazarus has a sad story: for twenty years, his wife, Alexandra Jann, has been seriously ill. She lives in a forbidden wing of the house; Lazarus is her only caretaker.

At first, the Sauvelles are quite happy. They live on the headland in a two-story house called Seaview. Irene befriends another teenage girl, Hannah, who cooks for Lazarus. Hannah introduces Irene to her cousin, a shy sailor named Ismael. Irene and Ismael fall in love. They bond over a shared love of adventure, and visit a deserted island said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who drowned there. Ismael finds the woman's diary and Irene reads it, intrigued.

One night, Hannah sleeps at Cravenmoore, but is woken by the sound of a broken window shutter. She rushes to another wing of the house to close it, and finds a strange room. The room is built for a child and covered in newspaper clippings about a deadly fire and a child who was found, alive, locked in a basement. There is also a small vial on a desk. Hannah opens it and a terrifying, morphing shadow comes out. The shadow chases Hannah out of the house and through the forest, where her dead body is found the next morning. Ismael vows to solve her murder, and he and Irene go to Cravenmoore to find clues.

Simultaneously, Lazarus, acting on a budding mutual attraction, is visiting Simone, and asks her to a dance. At Cravenmoore, the shadow stalks Irene and Ismael in the form of one of Lazarus's toys. They find Alexandra, and Irene realizes that she is Alexandra Alma Maltisse—the woman from the lighthouse island diary. The shadow chases them through the forest and into a cave, where they barely survive the incoming tide. The same night, to Dorian's horror, the shadow spirits Simone away while she is sleeping in her bed.

Simone wakes up in the child's bedroom in Cravenmoore. She has an extended conversation with Lazarus in which he reveals his life story: his mother used to lock him in the basement. Once, while trapped, he was visited by the apparition of a famous toymaker. The toymaker offered him a deal: fame and wealth for his heart. That toymaker stole Lazarus's shadow—his doppelgänger, or evil alter ego—and put it in a bottle. Marrying Alexandra Alma Maltisse (and giving her his heart) broke this deal. The shadow was unleashed and it killed her. A grieving Lazarus used her remains to build a toy version of her. He keeps this toy in a room in the house. At the end of this conversation, Simone realizes that she has been talking to the shadow.

In the book's conclusion, all characters are gathered in the automaton Alma's room to face the shadow. Lazarus kills himself to kill the shadow. Cravenmoore burns. Years later, after the war, Irene writes Ismael a letter suggesting that they will reunite.

Critical Evaluation

The Watcher in the Shadows, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves, was originally published in Spain as Las luces de septiembre in 1995. It is the third book of Ruiz Zafón's La Trilogía de la Niebla (the Mist Trilogy). Ruiz Zafón is an enormously popular, internationally best-selling author. In 2016, the Washington Post described him as the "most read Spanish author since Cervantes," the sixteenth-century scribe of Don Quixote. Ruiz Zafón's best-known translated works include the mystery novel La sombra del viento (2001; The Shadow of the Wind, 2004), set during the Spanish Civil War, and its prequel in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, El juego del ángel (2008; The Angel's Game, 2009).

A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly described The Watcher in the Shadows as an "exciting, if somewhat over-the-top Gothic thriller" with "plenty of thrills and chills." Jonathan Hunt, who reviewed the book for the Horn Book Magazine, also enjoyed the book, noting its "clever plot, sympathetic characters, and a richly detailed 1930s setting" and Graves's evocative and "beautiful translation." Other reviewers critiqued the characterization of Irene, the book's protagonist, saying that she has no discernible personality, skills, or desires in contrast to the more vividly drawn Ismael, who drives the action. The image of the monstrous shadow is effectively invoked to describe the human capacity for evil at the end of the book.

Further Reading

  • Hunt, Jonathan. Review of The Watcher in the Shadows, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The Horn Book Magazine, 1 May 2013, pp. 100–101. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=87024852&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
  • Review of The Watcher in the Shadows, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Publisher's Weekly, 22 Apr. 2013, p. 58. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=87294457&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
  • Roig-Franzia, Manuel. "The Bestselling Literary Sensation You May Struggle to Name." The Washington Post, 14 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/a-man-of-few-words-and-millions-of-readers/2016/10/14/20810918-8967-11e6-875e-2c1bfe943b66_story.html. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
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