Carlos Ruiz Zafon first introduced readers to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books through the enchanting THE SHADOW OF THE WIND. He followed that acclaimed novel with THE ANGEL’S GAME, a magic realism thriller taking place at the end of World War II. It is in no way a sequel to the first book, although the setting and main characters are centered on the family-owned bookstore Sempere and Sons, an historical fixture in the heart of Barcelona. The modest shop has weathered the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and World Wars I and II, surviving tumultuous political and social upheavals. In THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN, we find Daniel Sempere, recently wed and father of a young son, struggling to help his father keep the business alive during a recession in 1956.
"Invoking the atmosphere of Dumas, Dickens, Poe and Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafon retains his originality and will hold his rightful place among the storytelling masters of literature."
Daniel’s father faithfully retains a longtime friend of the family, Fermin Romero del Torres, who works in the bookstore. Fermin finds himself confronted with a threatening shadow from his past as he fills out paperwork in preparation for his marriage. Keeping a low profile has become a way of life for men of a certain age in post-war Spain, and the country has suffered 20 years of brutality under the boot of dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Daniel knows little about Fermin’s past other than he, like other dissidents at the end of the bloody revolution, had paid for his loyalty to the losing side by being shackled in the notorious dungeon fortress that looms above the city. Those who survived (and their numbers were few) were barely able to stagger through the gates, each leaving a part of their sanity and very souls in the infamous torture chambers. None had ever escaped.
A mysterious old man, badly crippled, appears at the book shop to purchase a wedding gift for Fermin, who is away for the day. The old man selects a very expensive rare edition of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, enters an ominous inscription on the title page, and signs his name “Fermin Romero del Torres,” the same name as Daniel’s friend. Intrigued, Daniel follows him through the streets of Barcelona to a sleazy hotel in the red light district. He returns to the store and shows the book to Fermin, who is shaken when he sees the inscription and his own name written by another. Daniel presses him for more details, and Fermin reluctantly confides in him. Times are still very dangerous as Franco retains his fanatical grip on Spain. The fact that this man, who Fermin knows and fears, is still alive and privy to his whereabouts could threaten the bridegroom’s life and future family.
THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN is the third in a promised four-part saga centered on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Zafon writes that none is a sequel to the other and that each novel stands alone and can be read in any order. Barcelona comes vividly, albeit darkly, to life through Zafon’s masterful storytelling ability in each of these first three books. One would be mistaken to ascribe any single genre or style to describe each volume, because although the setting and people are the same, none is told in the same manner. It is a testament to Zafon’s genius that he doesn’t fall into the pit of mimicking himself with each new rendering.
The city of Barcelona lends itself to dark themes with its Gothic towers and bloody history. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND could almost be described as a Gothic novel with its mystery, romance and suspense. THE ANGEL’S GAME, on the other hand, leans toward a psychological, supernatural thriller ala magic realism, while THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN is a historical novel depicting the life and misfortunes of a man who fought on the wrong side of a revolution. Invoking the atmosphere of Dumas, Dickens, Poe and Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafon retains his originality and will hold his rightful place among the storytelling masters of literature.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on July 13, 2012