From the Cemetery of Lost Books, a novel set to win readers

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You may not have heard of Carlos Ruiz Zafón yet. He is, after all, a Spanish author never previously published here.

You may not have heard of Carlos Ruiz Zafón yet. He is, after all, a Spanish author never previously published here.

But it looks certain that British readers will soon be familiar with him. For The Shadow of the Wind, Zafón's magical story of the Cemetery of Lost Books, is a novel that is prompting superlatives and winning fans. It is likely to become one of those word-of-mouth recommendations that grows into a worldwide hit.

In Waterstone's it is selling better this week than Nigella Lawson's Feast, Jamie's Dinners from Jamie Oliver, the Booker-longlisted Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and the latest Terry Pratchett.

In Germany, the novel went to number one in the charts after Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister, picked up a copy at the Frankfurt book fair and told national television he could not put it down.

Three years after it was first published in Spain it is still topping bestseller lists, and is the most popular piece of Spanish fiction ever published after the classics.

Kirsty Dunseath, editorial director of the British publisher Phoenix, snapped it up as soon as she read it in the original Spanish. She is convinced it has the same potential as Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, which became a multimillion-pound hit on the strength of personal recommendations. "It's what you hope for as an editor. It's got everything; a really strong plot, it's commercial, but it's also literary. It has thriller elements and history thrown in. It defies genre," she said.

Yet it had everything going against it, according to publishing lore. As Scott Pack, the buyer for Waterstone's, explained: "It's debut fiction and it's in translation and it's literary. Everyone is saying how difficult it is to sell literary books, and debut works and anything in translation. What more could you do to convince the great British public not to buy it? But it's the best book I've read in years." He loved it so much that he took the bold step of persuading Phoenix to produce a special large-scale "trade" paperback because the normal paperback was not due till May but he was convinced the book could be a Christmas winner.

The hardback has sold some 3,500 copies since its publication in the spring and Mr Pack said that the hot-off-the-press trade paperback retailing at £9.99 will have sold more than that in its first two weeks on the shelves.

"It is a real word-of-mouth book," Mr Pack said. "I say, pick it up in the shop, read the first three or four pages and if they haven't moved you, you haven't got a heart. But it got me straight away."

Lewis Jones, a books critic for The Daily Telegraph, admitted that for the first time in 20 years as a reviewer he was tempted to employ "some particularly vulgar clichés from the repertoire of publishers' blurbs ... The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller's art, I couldn't put it down. Enchanting, thrilling, hilarious and heartbreaking, this book will change your life. Carlos Ruiz Zafón ... has done that exceedingly rare thing - he has produced, in his first novel, a popular masterpiece, an instant classic."

Zafón, who lives in Barcelona where he has previously published fiction for young adults, seems quietly thrilled at sales of 1.5 million worldwide. "It just keeps expanding its base. Every time someone reads it, they became a friend of the book," the 40-year-old author said yesterday. "Many of us who are connected to the world of books or culture have come to think that everything is about marketing. We have become so cynical about the idea that a book or a movie can be successful just by its own merits. But this has given faith to many people."

What is ironic is that The Shadow of the Wind is the story of a book, called The Shadow of the Wind, which languishes, like thousands of others, in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

In real life, it looks set to do no such thing.