Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Genre: Adult Thriller
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Release date (U.S.): January 16 2014
Source: e-book from publisher
The nitty-gritty: Violent and sometimes shocking, with an unusual narrator, a brutal main character, but ultimately, a skillfully constructed story.
Barcelona is an old lady with a battered soul, who has been left by a thousand lovers but refuses to admit it. Every time she grows, she looks in the mirror, sees herself changed and renews all her blood until it’s almost at boiling point. Like a butterfly’s cocoon, she finally bursts. Distrust becomes the first phase of gestation: no one is sure that he whom they’ve lived with for years, whom they’ve considered a neighbor, isn’t now an enemy.
At first I thought it was going to be nearly impossible to review this book. When I started reading it, I didn’t like it at all. I hated the characters, I hated the violence, but most of all I hated the subject matter. It was almost a DNF for me, which is something I never do. But I kept reading, and at about the half-way point, I began to realize that even though the characters were still horrible and the subject matter hadn’t changed, Marc Pastor is an extremely talented writer.
So when I had to give a star rating to this book, I decided I could either base my rating on how much I enjoyed the story and characters, or I could give this book extra points for the sheer brilliance of the writing. I decided to do the latter, and Barcelona Shadows ended up with four stars. I also remembered one other thing, that the violent story depicted in these pages is based on the true story of the early twentieth-century child abductor Enriqueta Marti, a woman who was brought frighteningly to life in these pages. Looking at it from that perspective, I now appreciate the story for what it is: an honest portrayal of a brutal time, when many people are living a hard-scrabble life and doing whatever they can to survive, in a place with clear lines drawn between social classes, disease, and a corrupt government. I don’t have to like reading about these things, but in this case Pastor has done his job, which is to bring a horrible event to life with the skill of a seasoned writer.
The story takes place in 1911 Barcelona. Children are disappearing, but no one seems to know what to do about it. The whispers on the street suggest that the child abductor is a “monster” who kills and eats the children. Moisès Corvo is a hardened police detective with a grim past who is investigating the disappearances. With his partner Juan Malsano, they begin questioning the more suspicious people in the neighborhood, and despite Corvo’s “persuasive” methods of interrogation, they turn up little information. When the police chief insists that there is no “monster” and no child abduction cases to investigate, Corvo and Malsano know they’ll have to discover the truth on their own, even if it means coming face to face with unspeakable terror.
Barcelona Shadows is (appropriately) narrated by Death, and I have to admit it took me a while to get into the groove of this unusual narrative style. Many of us have read The Book Thief, another story that uses this device, but this time I felt the transitions were too jarring and not as seamlessly incorporated. At times, Death is simply looking down at the unfolding events and describing what’s happening, but at other times he actually takes over the bodies of characters and speaks through them. This confused me at first, but I did see what the author was trying to do, although it wasn’t until the end of the book that it all came together for me.
Lots of things in this story were very hard for me to read, which is strange because I don’t shy away from violent stories. But this one hit too close to home: it’s about children being abducted, hurt and worse. There are child prostitution rings in this story (and I’m thankful the author didn’t go into any detail here). And maybe even more shocking, the person behind all these crimes is a woman. (And that isn’t a spoiler, folks. The reader knows right from the beginning who the “monster” is.)
The characters in Barcelona Shadows aren’t the sort of touchy-feely characters I’m used to. Our main character Corvo beats up suspects to get them to talk, cheats on his wife, and drinks and smokes a lot. Some of the characters are grave robbers. Most of the women are prostitutes, drunks, or drug addicts. And then there is Enriqueta, one of the most monstrous characters I’ve ever met. When I reached the end of the book, I realized that I didn’t really like any of the them.
And yet I gave this book four stars. Pastor drew me in slowly with such skill that I didn’t even realize I was enjoying myself until I reached the last third of the story. I began to see what a very talented writer can do to make a story mesmerizing, even when his subject matter is so disturbing that it will mostly likely turn many readers off. In the end, which was horrific in another way entirely, I was glad that I made myself finish this book. The subject matter is grim and the characters abhorrent, but the writing is brilliant, a thing of beauty even, in a story without any beauty at all.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
You can find Barcelona Shadows here: