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Carlos Ruiz Zafon was one of those authors I stumbled across by accident. I swapped one of my old books for a copy of The Shadow of the Wind and instantly became fascinated by images of post-war Spain that Zafon creates, and his ability to mix the mundane with the mildly odd and supernatural.
After surviving the mysterious events of The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere is married and living happily in Franco's Spain with his family and close friend Fermin. Fermin is on the verge of getting married until his past returns to haunt him. He and Daniel are forced to confront secrets which have long been hidden and which threaten to destroy them both.
In his author notes at the start, Zafon explains that this book is one of a series he has written featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and that the books are intended as standalone works that can be read in any order. Whilst that is true some of the titles, I think you need to have read The Shadow of the Wind, to get the most out of this book, which is effectively a sequal. It picks up on many of the themes of the earlier book, and the narrative follows on (and are influenced by) events in Shadow. Whilst you could (just about) read it as a standalone novel, I think you would lose an awful lot of the relevance and richness of the novel's plotting.
Exactly why Prisoner of Heaven is so interesting to read is hard to define. On the one level, not a lot happens- certainly nothing quite as dramatic as the events portrayed in The Shadow of the Wind. Yet, for all that, there is something deeply compelling about it. It's fascinating to see the focus shift away from Daniel and onto Fermin (who, in truth, has always been the more interesting character) and to find out even more about his hidden past. It's equally compelling to see how secrets that people believe have been left in the past can suddenly re-emerge.
Zafon creates an incredibly real sense of period around 1950s Barcelona. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it feels real, which is surely the main thing. It convinces the reader that they are being taken back to that turbulent post-war period, when Franco's regime generated a sense of oppression and fear. This vivid sense of period is a fundamental part of the book's appeal.
Like its predecessor, The Prisoner of Heaven is a deeply intelligent book, without being pretentious. At its heart lie some strong characters living (relatively) ordinary lives. Yet, within this simple structure, Zafon weaves such an interesting, compelling tale that it's almost impossible to put down. From the nitty-gritty of the financial plight of the Sempere's bookshop, through to the horrific experiences buried in Fermin's past, it's real page-turner.
Zafon has an incredibly readable style that makes you want to keep going. Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore and this is exactly what Zafon makes it. I found myself wanting to grab a quick five minutes here and there just to read a bit more. This desire is aided by short chapters which make it exactly the kind of book that you can do that with and it is so addictive it should come with some kind of government health warning! I found myself devouring it in great chunks and only putting it down with great reluctance when real life (the need to eat, for example) got in the way.
Credit, too, must go the translator who does a superb job. If you didn't know otherwise, you would scarcely be able to guess that this was not originally written in English. The translator's use of language is exemplary, perfectly capturing the tone of the book, its setting and its characters. I think there was just one occasion k when a single sentence stood out as being slightly clumsy. Other than that, it is perfection all the way.
Perhaps the sole disappointing aspect is that it very much feels like a bridging tale. The book builds on what happened in Shadow and introduces new elements that throw new light on those events and develop them. However, whilst some plot points are resolved, others are left hanging. On the one level this works, and adds to the sense of realism (real life doesn't always have neatly packaged conclusions) On the other hand, it is slightly frustrating to read almost 300 pages, and still be forced to wait for the next book to find out how everything is resolved.
Because it's clear that another book is coming. Where plotlines are left unresolved, it's obvious that this is because they are being kept for a later date. In that sense, the book just about gets away with it. Prisoner might be a bridging tale, but it's a bridging tale in the same way as The Empire Strikes Back: hugely enjoyable in its own right, but something which is always building towards the next instalment. I'm happy; as long as Zafon doesn't include Ewoks in the next chapter...
Costing around £6 for either paperback or Kindle edition, fans of Zafon's previous works are bound to want this and rightly so. If you are new to his novels, I'd recommend that at the very least you read The Shadow of the Wind before attempting this one, but otherwise it comes highly recommended.
The Prisoner of Heaven
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2012
© Copyright SWSt 2012