The Midnight Palace
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
translated by Lucia Graves
‘Never mind the number of candles on your birthday cake,’ writes Zafon in his introduction to The Midnight Palace, ‘for those in the know, it’s what lies beneath them that matters’.
Zafon’s first four published novels were intended for young adults. The Midnight Palace, written about seven years before The Shadow of the Wind, is the second to be translated into English. The Palace is a derelict building in Calcutta, the headquarters of a secret society of orphan teenagers. As Ben and his six friends are about to leave the orphanage for good, they meet elderly Aryami Bose and her granddaughter Sheere.
It turns out that Ben and Sheere are twins whom Bose has separated shortly after their birth to protect them from a family curse. Pursued by Jawahal, a diabolical presence who can appear and disappear at will, crush flesh and bone, and melt metal at a touch, the friends embark on a quest to find answers: why has Aryami lied to them? where is Ben’s and Sheere’s father’s house? what really happened on the night when more than three hundred orphan children were incinerated in a horrific train disaster?
‘Ben could feel the heat of the fire on his face and he covered his ears to stifle the excrutiatinghe children. The blazing train tore across the deserted plain … racing towards St Patrick’s like a guided missile.’
The teenagers’ search puts them all in mortal danger, especially Ben and Sheere, for whom the danger is not merely the threat of death but of something much worse. Against an immortal villain who appears invincible, their only weapon seems to be their love and friendship for one another. And, as is so often the case when good faces evil in an impossible contest, only a supreme sacrifice can break the deadlock.
The Midnight Palace is a fantasy but we can see already in the writing some of the elements that Zafon will use in his adult stories. There is his use of suspense and of the gothic – a haunted railway station, dark streets and fetid passageways, a sprawling mansion to which entry is gained by turning four alphabetic wheels. And, like those in his Barcelona quadrilogy (so far), the antagonist in The Midnight Palace is as relentless as he is pitiless.
Although the writing in this novel is not as grand and accomplished as that of, say, The Angel’s Game, for me it has the same feel of surrealism. The Midnight Palace is not a happy-ever-after tale like those Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton, or even the Bulldog Drummond series with all its derring-do. It is not even happy-for-now. But the ending is satisfying.
Though intended for teenagers, this is a book that adults can enjoy too, to recapture some of the literary thrills of late childhood. And, as always, Lucia provides a beautiful translation from the Spanish.