First of all, a warning: do not read this book when it's nighttime and you're alone in the house. I made that mistake and spent the rest of the night on edge, genuinely unsettled by the vivid, borderline horrific imagery that Carlos Ruiz Zafon interweaves into MARINA, his latest novel to be published in English.
MARINA was originally published in 1999 in Spain; it's taken the successful English translation of several of Zafon's other novels for teens and adults to bring this one to English-speaking readers, and it's about time, too. MARINA is romantic, atmospheric and steeped in the history and ambience of Barcelona. And did I mention that it's also more than a little terrifying?
"Eerie or not, MARINA is also a compelling introduction to the sights and sounds, the history and lore of Barcelona, which rightly plays a starring role in this absorbing tale."
Oscar attends boarding school in Barcelona, but school and studying are barely of interest to him. Instead, he lives for the hours of free time each day when he is able to wander and explore the city he loves: "During those long walks I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. My imagination would take wing and soar high above the buildings. For a few hours the streets of Barcelona, the boarding school, and my gloomy room on the fourth floor seemed to vanish." Oscar's story is set in the late 1970s, a time at which, according to Oscar, "Barcelona was a mirage of avenues and winding alleys where one could easily travel thirty or forty years into the past by just stepping into the foyer of a grand old building or walking into a café."
This malleability of time and space comes to life in Oscar's story. On one of those solitary reveries through the city, he happens upon a crumbling mansion. After following a mysterious singing voice, he discovers what appears to be a solid gold watch with an evocative inscription. Without thinking, he takes it with him. Consumed by guilt over his inadvertent theft, he returns to the scene of the crime, where he encounters a fragile, alluring young woman named Marina, and her father German, to whom the watch belongs.
Oscar and Marina begin an intense friendship; he accompanies her on her investigations of a mysterious woman who visits the local graveyard, and soon he is even more embroiled than Marina is in this peculiar mystery. As Oscar delves deeper into the mysteries of the past, he is dogged by creatures out of nightmare and by the stench of death. What secrets do Marina and German --- and perhaps the entire city of Barcelona ---hold? What is Oscar's role in a drama that has been playing out for decades?
The macabre, almost surrealist imagery with which Ruiz Zafon infuses his novel, as well as its nested narratives, reminded me a bit of the film Pan’s Labyrinth. MARINA will appeal to readers who like their historical fiction flavored with more than a hint of horror. Eerie or not, MARINA is also a compelling introduction to the sights and sounds, the history and lore of Barcelona, which rightly plays a starring role in this absorbing tale.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 23, 2014