The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Twins are separated at birth, neither one knowing about the other. They are pursued by a villain who seems almost supernatural. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Midnight Palace, written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who wrote The Angel’s Game, embraces the twins-in-danger story and still delivers surprises.
The Midnight Palace is marketed as young adult. Zafón respects his audience, addressing serious issues in an authentic way. Real world problems are not solved at the end with a homily about everyone getting along. I was a little disappointed in some of the secondary characters, who were not as developed as I would have liked. Overall, though, the vivid visuals, the setting (1932 Calcutta) and the interesting story carried me along. Ben and Sheere, the twins, are sweet, and Ian, who narrates part of the story, emerges as a compelling character. Lucia Graves’s translation is as transparent as crystal, enhancing rather than impeding the story.
Ben, raised in St. Patrick’s orphanage, has drawn together a group of orphan friends who call themselves the Chowbar Club. They meet at a dilapidated house, the Midnight Palace, to tell stories and dream about their futures. Ben has no idea that he has a sister, or that he is being pursued by the murderous madman who killed his parents.
When Ben turns sixteen, he has a strange vision of a train in flames, filled with screaming children. The headmaster of the orphanage is horribly burned in an explosion in his office. He tells Ben to approach Aryami, a mysterious woman who had appeared at the orphanage the previous night with a young woman named Sheere. Aryami acknowledges Ben as her grandson, and tells him that his father and mother were murdered by a madman named Jawahal. Ben and Sheere’s father, Chandra Chatterghee, was an engineering genius who designed the beautiful Jheeter’s Gate train station. His vision was a railroad that would unite the country and provide economic freedom for India. On the railroad’s inaugural run, a train bearing three hundred sixty five orphans burst into flame, killing the orphans and Ben’s father. It destroyed the station. Jawahal claimed credit for the fire, and killed Ben and Sheere’s mother, but a family friend rescued the twin infants and brought them to Aryami. Now, at sixteen, they have again become targets of this crazed killer.
As the Chowbar Club members vow to help Ben and Sheere escape the madman, they begin to investigate the history of the tragic train wreck and the deaths of the twins’ parents. Soon it becomes obvious that the story Aryami told is incomplete, to say the least. Many mysteries are revealed, as danger closes in on Aryami and the twins.
Without being too heavy-handed, Zafón weaves in some Indo-English history and discusses the desire for independence, and the abuses of the English. Equally horrific, though, are the desperate acts people are driven to by their crushing poverty. Jawahal’s mother, for instance, immolated herself as a sacrifice to Kali. Jawahal, a child, escaped into madness, and is no longer merely a man, but something more dangerous.
The book is aimed at young readers, but there are moments of dry wit that will make the adult reader smile:
“We’re getting old, Vendela,” said the headmaster.
“You’re getting old, Thomas,” she corrected him. “I’m maturing.”
“…do you enjoy math, Ben? Math is the faith of those with a brain; that is why it has so few followers.”
Three physical structures stand out in this book. The Midnight Palace is barely described, although what happens within it, the bonding of the young people, is more important than the interior. Chandra Chatterghee’s mysterious house, discovered through a series of puzzles, is an amazing feat of engineering, but the haunted shell of the ruined train station is the most powerful setting in this book.
The careful reader will figure out the secret of Jawahal’s identity before Ben does. Even with that secret revealed, the story of Ben and Sheere’s father and the strange invention called the Firebird is intriguing. The description of the devastated train station, with the puddle of blood that never dries, the ruined train and the Firebird were so haunting they woke me up at night. After I closed the book, the camaraderie of the Chowbar Club stayed with me. Zafón creates a suspenseful tale of secrets, loyalty and love in a strange and beautiful setting.
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