But anyway, on to the actual story. The first chapter introduces the reader to Max, a 13 year old boy who is told on his birthday (along with his mother and two sisters) that they're moving the next day. A bit of an abrupt way to break the news isn't it? And it's certainly not taken well by our main character, who can't comprehend having what is effectively his entire world being taken away. Having gone through a similar move when I was 6, I can totally sympathise with what is a huge task to a young child: hell, it's still a difficult thing when you're my age. Considering this, I thought the characterisation was spot on, although I'd have preferred to have seen what Max is being uprooted from before he has to prepare for the move, as opposed to confronting the reader with it on the first page. So it turns out that Max's father is moving them to a small town on the coast in order to avoid the effects of World War 2, which is fair enough (although hindsight makes it seem a little pointless, if this is set in Spain like Zafon's other novels). So Max gets his birthday present, a pocket watch, after his dad has talked through the bad news he's gotten: presumably Max's dad is of the school of thought that dictates that regardless of how bad the news is, kids will be distracted afterwards by shiny things/presents/both. Although the description of this pocket watch is pretty damn cool:
"The hours on the face were marked out by moons that waxed and waned to the rhythm of time, and the hands were the rays of a sun radiating out from the centre of the dial. On the case, engraved in fine script, were the words Max's time machine."If I didn't already own a pocket watch, that would be an absolute must-have. Or something close to it would be anyway.
So Max ends up spending a sleepless night before he has to move, a condition mirrored by his dad, who gives Max a book on Copernicus that he spent the night reading. Quite why a 13 year old would want a book about Copernicus, I'm not sure. His dad leaves to give everyone their wake-up call, while Max sits there and reads. Seems an odd thing to do while your family's getting ready to leave, but I'll let it slide. He has a rather awkward conversation with his mum, then they leave. All very to-the point at the moment. Plus, there's one sentence that just doesn't seem to fit with the action; after she's had a bit of a nostalgic moment in which she reveals that Max and his sisters were all born in the house, and he reassures her that everything's alright, there's this line, which doesn't make much sense:
"His mother had a way of reading his thoughts."What does that have to do with it? That line just seems to come out of nowhere, unless there's something I totally missed just then.
There's a paragraph dedicated to Max's first glimpse of the sea now. This bit bugs me a little: granted, the passage is well-written and I'll admit that the sea is a beautiful sight in the right conditions, but Max seems to get over the fact that he's moving away from the only place he's ever known far too easily; just because Max had a little bit of a mope earlier doesn't mean that he can just accept the move like this. They haven't even been away for more than a few hours!
When they get to the town, Max's first impression of the town is that it looks like one of those towns you can buy as part of a toy train set. Which just brings a kind of Sims sort of situation to mind really, although I doubt Max and his family will go through events as cruel as some players create with Sims. Although Max's mum has been the victim of sloppy editing already: "veredict"? Really? But in any case, the dad seems wildly optimistic about the place, while the mum is supportive but much less sure about the move. Max's younger sister Irina makes a friend almost instantly, in the form of a stray cat. His elder sister, Alicia, on the other hand, seems to be acting in the spoiled brat/unappreciated centre of the universe way that is unfortunately prevalent in most teenagers; I dislike her already. The little sister wins out in any case and is allowed to keep the cat so long as she looks after it. The chapter ends with a little moment of weirdness that will hopefully be explained later: when they arrive at the train station the clock says that it's half twelve (which is an hour and a half slow by Max's watch) but when they leave, the clock reads ten to twelve. Why have a clock that goes backwards?
So, other than a few moments that seemed a bit out, I thought that this was a really nice way to start a story. Ideally I would have preferred a bit more focus on what they left behind and actually have Max miss it a little more even after he is charmed by his first sight of the sea, but so far I'm enjoying it. Hopefully this won't begin to drag like House of Leaves did, considering that this has an undeniably shorter word count. Granted, this isn't as good as Zafon's other books thus far, but I still have several chapters with which to be wowed yet.