The Prisoner of Heaven
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins
a copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
I don't know how it happened that I had never read one of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books. My friends have raved to me about The Shadow of the Wind; no, they more than raved, they proselytized about the book. So when the opportunity came to read The Prisoner of Heaven, I pretty much leaped at the chance.
The Prisoner of Heaven is part of a cycle of novels (there are four planned, as far as I know) set in the "literary universe" of an imaginary Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The series begins with The Shadow of the Wind, but the cycle is designed to be entered from any of the books (each tells a self-contained tale). And this is a wonderful idea: the idea of a labyrinth of stories, with interwoven characters and story lines, which can be entered through various doors. And the setting for much of The Prisoner of Heaven is a bookstore, which, in my opinion, makes for an irresistible book. The cycle of books must certainly attract a reader who will read and then reread the books again and again.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon previously published several highly successful young adult novels, and he seems to have profited greatly from that experience. His novel is tightly paced and structured, with a narrative that pulls the reader along so steadily that it is pointless to try to put the book down. His chapters are extremely short, and the reader is immediately immersed in Barcelona of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's.
The narrator is Daniel Sempere of Sempere and Sons, a Barcelona bookstore owned by Daniel's father. Daniel's friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, is about to get marrried, but he's been acting strange lately. And then a mysterious customer buys a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, leaving it for Fermin, and a gothic mystery begins.
Zafon clearly loves books, writers, and literature, and his novel pays homage to books on every page. To tell the story of Fermin, Zafon takes the reader back to the 1930's, when a terrified Fermin becomes prisoner number 13, a victim of the Franco dictatorship. Fermin is imprisoned in a castle on the outskirts of Barcelona, and if you are at all familiar with the novel by Alexandre Dumas, you may be able to guess what happens. In some ways this novel reminded me of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, because of the intersection of the darker side of history, fantasy, and books. And aspects of The Prisoner of Heaven are Kafkaesque, especially the political intrigue.
The setting of The Prisoner of Heaven is moody and atmospheric. There is the dark castle of a prison, where Fermin meets and befriends the writer Daniel Martin, a Barcelona slum where the inhabitants survive only because they are nameless and invisible. There is the Barcelona of 1957, where Daniel Sempere seeks the truth about Fermin's--and his own--past.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, first introduced in The Shadow of the Wind, is a place where books are preserved---books which have been "consigned to oblivion" when a library disappears or a bookstore closes. And the first time someone visits The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he or she chooses a book and becomes that book's guardian. It's a lovely idea, one that any true lover of books will immediately grasp.
The idea that readers preserve books and literature, and that we, the readers, complete any book we read, is at the heart of Zafon's cycle. It's an idea that will pull readers into The Prisoner of Heaven, and make readers more than willing to enter Zafon's labyrinth of stories again and again.
Readers of Zafon's other novels will undoubtedly read The Prisoner of Heaven without any prompting. But if you haven't been drawn into this labyrinthine world of books, I highly recommend you do so.