The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The book begins with a chase through the streets of Calcutta in May 1916. Lieutenant Peake pauses for breath outside the ruins of the Jheeter’s Gate station knowing that he only has a few hours to live. Inside his overcoat he is sheltering two newborn babies – twins, a boy and a girl. Pursued by his would-be assassins, Peake runs at full tilt to the house of Aryami Bose, to whom he entrusts the children. In 1932 we meet the boy, Ben, and his group of friends the night before they are due to leave St Patricks orphanage. They have formed a secret club, The Chowbar Society, that meets each week at midnight in the old ruin they have christened The Midnight Palace. Their final meeting is due that evening but then Aryami Bose turns up at the orphanage with Sheere, Ben’s sister, and tells them the story of the parents they never knew. Their father was an engineer and writer who died in tragic circumstances at the inauguration of Jheeter’s Gate station. But as the novel unfolds, there is more to this story than meets the eye and they are lured by a shadowy figure from the past into a final showdown in the ruins.
I am a huge fan of Carlos Ruiz Zafon after having discovered him, like most people, through his adult novel The Shadow of the Wind, which still remains one of my favourite books of all time. Since then, Zafon has written a follow up to The Shadow of the Wind, titled The Angel’s Game, and the first of his young adult trilogy, The Prince of Mist was published last year for the first time in English. The Midnight Palace is the second of Zafon’s young adult trilogy to be published.
What I love about Zafon’s young adult titles is the way they feel like classic children’s stories. The Prince of Mist and The Midnight Palace are both classic adventure stories full of magic, intrigue and horror with enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. The characters in The Midnight Palace have come together to create a secret club called the Chowbar Society, which is very reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five or The Secret Seven. Like Blyton, Zafon’s young adult stories could easily become classic stories that are read generation after generation.
The almost gothic setting of 1930sCalcuttais so wonderfully described by Zafon that I felt like I was almost there, I felt like I knew this place down to its very bones even though I have never been there or know virtually nothing about the place. Zafon has such a way with words that he can draw you in at an instant and keep you with him until he’s finished.
Ben was left on the doorstep of an orphanage when he was just a baby, leaving him in the hands of Mr Carter. Ben grows up knowing nothing of his family or where he comes from, the only people he knows are those he grew up with – the members of The Chowbar Society. They have only each other to turn to. But strange things begin to occur and Ben starts seeing a ghostly train appear in the night, full of screaming young children who are burning to death. With this apparition, comes a mysterious dark figure who turns Ben’s life upside down. The secrets of Ben’s past slowly start to unravel as him and his friends unlock the mysterious of the mysterious Jawahal – the man who has been after Ben since his birth with every intention of not letting him live to see another day. With these revelations, comes the truth of Sheere, a girl who just so happens to turn up at the orphanage one day with her grandmother. Sheere is in fact Ben’s long lost twin sister, and together they must fight the evil that threatens their lives and the lives of those dear to them.
Each member of the Chowbar Society has a particular set of skills that help Ben and Sheere to learn the truth of their hidden past. For example Michael can draw, Roshan can pick locks, Seth is a lover of books and knowledge and Ben is a great leader. Although Ben might be considered the ‘hero’ of the story, it is clear that he couldn’t have got anywhere without the help of his closest friends.
What I love about this novel is the way it makes you think just how precious childhood really is. This was a time in their lives when they were about to embark into the real world, they had reached the age of sixteen and it was time to leave the orphanage and seek their own lives. These were the last few meetings of The Chowbar Society, the last part of their story together before they each go their separate ways. There is something very nostalgic about that feeling, for me at least.
If I had one criticism of this novel it would be that the characters don’t quite feel developed enough for me. It would have been nice to perhaps go into the past of the other members of The Chowbar Society, to know how it was they came to be orphans just like Ben. There were also, I think, one too many of them – too many to really focus on and I kept forgetting who was who.
However, I really enjoyed The Midnight Palace and every time I read a book by Zafon, I am just in awe of his beautiful lyrical prose that manages to transport me into another world. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking for a young adult story that’s just that little bit different to most others books on the shelves right now. You won’t be disappointed!
The Midnight Palace is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion.
To read my review of The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon please click here.