By Marty Mulrooney
The Midnight Palace is a novel written for young adults by Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Originally published in 1994 as El Palacio de la Medianoche, this new edition from Orion books – available both as a young adult edition and in a collector’s adult edition – has been faithfully translated into English by Lucia Graves. It is May 1916 and an exhausted man is being pursued through the dark streets of Calcutta, sheltering two newborn babies beneath his jacket…
I’ll never forget the fear on the faces of my friends the night it snowed in Calcutta. But, as Ben used to tell me, the best place to start a story is at the beginning…
The story begins with a man named Lieutenant Peake fleeing from three men led by a shadowy figure known only as Jawahal. It is cold and pouring with rain, yet despite his exhaustion he manages to reach his destination and place the two children he is carrying into the safety of their grandmother, Aryami Bose, before heading back out to face his destiny… and certain doom.
Aryami Bose immediately places one of the children – Ben – into the care of Thomas Carter, who runs St Patrick’s orphanage, before fleeing the city with the second child, Sheere. It is only by separating the siblings that she can guarantee their safety. Sixteen years later on the eve of his birthday, Ben is preparing to leave the orphanage with his friends – The Chowbar Society – when he is suddenly and unexpectedly reunited with Sheere, feeling an immediate connection with her despite the truth of their bond being as of yet unknown to him.
‘A secret society?’ Sheere asked, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. I thought secret societies only existed in penny dreadfuls.’
The Chowbar Society meets every week in a derelict mansion they have christened The Midnight Palace – ‘a large rambling ruin which stood on the corner of Cotton Street and Brabourne Road’. The society includes six other members besides Ben – Siraj, Roshan, Seth, Isobel, Ian and Michael. Once they accept Sheere into their midst, a journey begins that will reveal the secrets of her and Ben’s father, the famous engineer Chandra Chattergee, who died in a horrific accident that also claimed the lives of three hundred and sixty-five orphaned children – one for each day of the year – being transported on a train from Calcutta to the orphanages of Bombay.
Each character is developed beautifully, the dialogue between them hinting at countless fathoms of unspoken backstory – these are children on the brink of adolescence who know and love each other like family. The other main character of the book is Calcutta itself, described by Zafón with such elegance that there is beauty to be found even in it’s darkest corners – the breeze that blew timidly through the streets of the Black Town seemed little more than a warm moist sigh from the Hooghly River.
His hands adhered to the metal and there was a ghastly hissing sound as the flesh burnt. Jawahal slowly opened his mouth and seemed to imbibe the clouds of steam floating in the locomotive. Then he turned and smiled at the horrified girl.
Jawahal is a menacingly written, suitably evil villain that continually drives the book forward. However, he also occasionally holds it back – his supernatural powers are never fully laid out, the boundaries of his abilities never quite made clear. As a result, the book often relies on a moderate amount of suspension of disbelief. It isn’t a major problem but it can make the final showdown within the spooky abandoned ruins of the Jheeter’s gate train station seem slightly anticlimactic.
Yet the real charm of The Midnight Palace are the characters that congregate within it. Genuine childhood comradery isn’t easy to nail but Carlos Ruiz Zafón makes it seem effortless – you will truly believe that eight determined children standing side by side can take on a manifestation of pure evil and triumph… almost. With an ending that is both bittersweet and heartaching, The Midnight Palace impacts as a novel both beautifully written and masterfully delivered. A dark slice of Calcutta delight to be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
9 OUT OF 10