1965: Shadow of a Bull (a story of mixed messages: to join the national suicide or not?)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 3.5/5

Maia Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull tackles the issue of fate versus free will in a story of a young boy who is destined to follow in the footsteps of his legendary bullfighting father. For his entire life, Manolo Olivar has been told that is a spitting image of his father and is destined to be just like him, but Manolo knows that he is too much of a coward to face a bull since he lacks the aficion – the bullfighter’s unconquerable urge to fight bulls. Having no choice but to accept his fate, he resigns himself to be taught by the town’s best trainers so he can enter the ring to fight a bull on his twelfth birthday.

The plot of Shadow of a Bull delves into Spain’s national pastime – bullfighting. The characters’ lives are defined by their desire to be participants in this barbaric sport. Manolo is trained to dance a veronica and wave a muleta at a charging bull. Much of the book is dedicated to teaching him the different traditions of the matador. Only Manolo finds himself not wanting to join the bandwagon since he is afraid of the bulls and knows that he will let everyone down when he eventually fails to live up to his dead father’s reputation. His feelings set him up to be an outsider who has an in with the popular crowd.

The characterization of Manolo’s fears and desires was realistic. Since the plot is so linear and singularly driven towards the final bullfight, Manolo’s thoughts are only about the topic at hand and don’t let the reader see any other aspects of his life. His talks with the local jaded doctor were the best parts of the book as the doctor’s wise advice prompts Manolo to think for himself and make decisions that are true to himself and not based on the town’s influence.

The illustrations by Alvin Smith are worth mentioning. They easily encapsulate the fatalistic theme and mood of the novel through simple pencil-like strokes where everything is darkly “shadowed” in. Smith’s drawings encapsulate the mood of the main character, who is constantly in the shadow of his father’s memory which predicts an ominous and death-filled future for Manolo.

Overall, Shadow of a Bull mixes a simple fairy tale-esque plot with some weighty themes on free will and choice. It excels at portraying an interesting part of Spanish history and tradition even though the bullfighting elements held no interest to me. While the novel had a satisfying, though predictable, ending, its simple plot was a bit on the boring side and held no real excitement.

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