17 September 2012

Review 52: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"Barcelona, 1957. It is the week before Christmas in the Sempere  & Sons bookshop. Daniel Sempere has married the love of his life, Bea, and they have had a son whilst their partner in crime, Fermin, is busy preparing for his wedding to Bernarda in the New Year. Just when it seems as if luck is finally smiling on them, a mysterious figure with a pronounced limp enters the shop. He insists on buying the most expensive volume on display - a beautiful illustrated edition of The Count of Monte Cristo - and then proceeds to inscribe the book with the words 'For Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future'. Who is this man and what does he want of Fermin? The answer lies in a terrible secret that has lain hidden for two decades, an epic tale of imprisonment, betrayal, murder and love that leads back into the very heart of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books."

The Prisoner of Heaven is definitely an enjoyable read with some great moments and plenty of intrigue but it really felt like a build up towards the fourth and final novel that is planned and is not satisfying enough as a standalone read. It suffers for being weaker than its predecessors. The Shadow of the Wind is absolutely exceptional, The Angel's Game is good although flawed and unfortunately The Prisoner of Heaven is just a little too mediocre to stand up to their reputation. It does work as part of the series and the love of books and the written word as well as the hugely appealing character of Fermin make it enjoyable without it having the depth to stay with you after you've finished it.

First Line: "That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies."

Why I read it: I adored The Shadow of the Wind and really enjoyed The Angel's Game and was keen to see how Zafon would add to the story.

Who I would recommend it to: People who have already committed to Zafon's Barcelona and have read his previous two installments.

Daniel Sempere is now an adult, living with his wife Bea and their young son whilst he helps his father with the Sempere & Sons bookshop. Money is tight until a mysterious man comes and buys the most expensive item they own, an old copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, before leaving a cryptic message for Fermin Romero. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with Fermin's story, his time spent in the infamous Montjuic Prison, how he escaped and ended up where he is now. His past is threatening his upcoming marriage to Bernarda and he and Daniel collude to bring everything into line in time to allow Fermin to marry the love of his life.

Fermin himself is witty, brave and loveable. Unfortunately Daniel has developed into a rather annoying man. He finds a letter to his wife from an old admirer and becomes obsessed with the idea that she is meeting him. I do find Zafon's female characters frustrating at times as they tend to either be beautiful martyrs or heart of gold prostitutes with rarely anything in between. Daniel's suspicions about Bea are hugely unappealing on his part. In fact I could have done without vast swathes of Daniel and just read more about Fermin as his was definitely my favourite element of the book and he was definitely the most appealing character.

I felt very aware as I was reading of how much I had forgotten about what had happened in The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game, I would definitely recommend re-reading them as characters and incidents were mentioned that I could only vaguely remember the details of. I read The Shadow of the Wind seven years ago, and The Angel's Game two years ago and I feel I definitely didn't register the impact of some of the revelations. I also had a niggling feeling that Zafon was rewriting some things to suit the way he wanted to take his story with elements of how David Martin was brought into earlier events and the way in which Daniel's mother died but I need to re-read in order to really work out if Zafon had managed to fit it all together satisfactorily.

As always with Zafon, there is a constant love of the written word, of books and of bookshops and I never fail to love that about his books. I will definitely read the next installment (although I will aim to re-read all three of its predecessors in advance) and hope that Zafon manages to bring it all together with something of The Shadow of the Wind's beauty and impact. This is beautifully written but unfortunately just felt like an in between novel that didn't have the depth of his other stories.

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