Title: The Prisoner of Heaven
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón / Translated by Julia Graves
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical, Thriller
Publisher: Harper Collins / Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date: July 2012 / June 2012
Hardcover: 279 pages
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, Fermín, 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 Fermín 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 Fermín? 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.
Stand alone or series: Book 3 of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: The first book in the series The Shadow of the Wind is simply one of my favourite books of all time. Although I loathed the second book in the series The Angel’s Game as well as The Midnight Palace a book in a different series, I wanted to give his books one last try.
WARNING! This post contains spoilers!!
Oh, The Prisoner of Heaven, WHY? WHY?
You will have to excuse this sudden display of emotional distress. But I am overcome with feelings and they must be exorcized here.
A few years ago I read The Shadow of the Wind, a tremendous Gothic thriller with labyrinthine storytelling, a wonderful sense of setting, beautiful writing and incredible characters. It soon became a favourite. I do recognise its problems especially those concerning the depiction of female characters but since everything else about that book was so good, I was able to enjoy it to a great extent. That said, I always felt that the The Shadow of the Wind was a standalone novel, its main story a self-contained affair – even though there was indeed potential for more stories in that world.
Cue a few years later and the author published a prequel entitled The Angel’s Game. Although the same beautiful prose was present, the book turned out to be a great disappointment. A meandering plot, clichéd characters and a GOTCHA open-for-interpretation clumsy ending and a very loose connection to The Shadow of the Wind made the cynical in me believe The Angel’s Game to be an afterthought to capitalise on the huge success of that first book.
Cue to a few years later and we now have The Prisoner of Heaven. A small introduction tells us that this is part of a cycle of novels in the same literary universe and this labyrinth of stories “when woven together lead to the heart of the narrative”.
The Prisoner of Heaven is then, as a matter of fact, the third book in what is now, excuse my French, a freaking quartet!
In all fairness there is nothing wrong with this idea in principle but in reality, I find its execution to be clumsy and exploitative.
The Prisoner of Heaven is narrated once more by The Shadow of the Wind’s hero Daniel Sempere – now married to Bea and with a young child, running the Sempere and Sons bookstore alongside his father. Business is not good and the two Semperes are struggling to make ends meet. Happiness is on the horizon though, as their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to wed Bernarda, the love of his life. But there is something bothering Fermín and he is not his usual upbeat self. Just then, a strange figure walks into the bookstore and leaves a message for Fermín that says:
“For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.”
This prompts Daniel to question Fermín about his past and those revelations will change everything Daniel knows about not only Fermín but also about his own family.
Ostensibly, The Prisoner of Heaven is Fermín’s book. The vast majority of the book is his account of his prison time at the infamous Montjuïc castle where during the days of Franco’s dictatorship (in the 40s), political prisoners where held and “disappeared”. The depiction of the prison and how the prisoners suffered was horrific and affecting.
It is there that Fermín becomes friends with David Martin, no other than the narrator of The Angel’s Game (!!!!!) (I shall go back to this astounding piece of information later). I have to say though that the description of the horrors suffered by the prisoners inside the prison were completely cheapened by Fermín’s daredevil escape – in the fashion of Count of Monte Cristo, a scheme devised and organised by David Martin. On that front one must ask: why didn’t David organise his own escape? Because it didn’t suit this story, that’s why.
Mind you, there are good things about The Prisoner of Heaven. The writing is still captivating and Fermín is his usual lovable self. In fact, Fermín remains a favourite character of mine. His resilience, his heroism, his wits and sense of humour are what make The Prisoner of Heaven at least readable.
The Prisoner of Heaven has a series of mysteries that are investigated by Daniel and Fermín and this construct as well as the very nature of those mysteries were utterly familiar. The “who is this figure who left the message”, the “why is this happening”, the “villain of this story is a piece of shit policeman” are just SO MUCH like The Shadow of the Wind it’s not even funny.
But the two main problems I had with The Prisoner of Heaven are the way that it rewrites the story of the first two books, and the depiction of the female characters.
With regards to the former: all of a sudden, we learn that through his friendship with David Martin, Fermín has been a part of the Semperes’ life ALL ALONG. That he knew about them, and has been following Daniel since he was a child. All of a sudden, Daniel’s mother Isabella was murdered as a part of this plot. All of a sudden, David Martin himself is a hero and we are led to question once again his already extremely unreliable narrative in The Angel’s Game. I get the feeling that this is supposed to enrich the story, to deepen it with the promised “narrative links” of the introduction. In reality, to me, this has done nothing but to cheapen the stories told so far. I do appreciate that this is a very personal reaction though and I am sure other readers will feel differently.
Which brings me to the problematic depiction of the female characters. Although I was able to love the first book despite this obvious problem, I found that this trend has been amplified in The Prisoner of Heaven in a way that it jumps from the pages. The vast majority of the female characters in this series are either prostitutes with a Heart of Gold (always, always described as being past “their prime”, poor souls to be pitied and lied to about their crumbling beauty) or Impossibly Beautiful Tragic/Angelic figures. Most of the female characters are victims. They are there to be protected, avenged or suspected of foul play.
One of the secondary storylines depicts Daniel finding a letter in Bea’s possession – which, by the way, he opens and reads– and when it turns out to be a love letter from her ex-fiancée, Bea becomes the object of Daniel’s suspicion. This is never fully addressed in the narrative directly with Bea, who never finds out about his suspicions. It is always about Daniel, about what he will do, how he will deal with this. He suspects her because she is too beautiful. To add insult to the injury, toward the end of the novel, there is one random chapter when the narrative is from Bernarda and Bea’s PoV and it is entirely about the men in their lives.
Ultimately, The Prisoner of Heaven reads like a filler novella. It is short, its narrative is full of shortcuts, it is nowhere near as well executed as The Shadow of the Wind and most exasperating of all, it ends on a maddening cliff-hanger in preparation for the final book.
I feel no desire to read the last book in this (now) quartet. In fact, I am done with Zafon’s books for good. It should tell you something that instead of feeling sad, I actually feel relieved for having made this decision.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Barcelona, December 1957
That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies. A bluish hue tinged the city and people walked by, wrapped up to their ears and drawing lines of vapour with their breath in the cold air. Very few stopped to gaze at the shop window of Sempere & Sons; fewer still ventured inside to ask for that lost book that had been waiting for them all their lives and whose sale, poetic fancies aside, would have contributed to shoring up the bookshop’s ailing finances.
‘I think today will be the day. Today our luck will change,’ I proclaimed on the wings of the first coffee of the day, pure optimism
in a liquid state.
My father, who had been battling with the ledger since eight o’clock that morning, twiddling his pencil and rubber, looked up from the counter and eyed the procession of elusive clients disappearing down the street.
‘May heaven hear you, Daniel, because at this rate, if we don’t make up our losses over the Christmas season, we won’t even be able to pay the electricity bill in January. We’re going to have to do something.’
‘Fermín had an idea yesterday,’ I offered. ‘He thinks it’s a brilliant plan that’ll save the bookshop from imminent bankruptcy.’
‘Lord help us.’
I quoted Fermín, word for word:
‘Perhaps if by chance I was seen arranging the shop window in my underpants, some lady in need of strong literary emotions would be drawn in and inspired to part with a bit of hard cash. According to expert opinion, the future of literature depends on women and as God is my witness the female is yet to be born who can resist the primal allure of this stupendous physique,’ I recited.
I heard my father’s pencil fall to the floor behind me and I turned round.
‘So saith Fermín,’ I added.
Rating: 4 – Bad but not without some merit.
Reading Next: Preloved by Shirley Marr
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