Review: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven hardback coverThe Prisoner of Heaven is, according to the forward, ‘part of a cycle of novels set in the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, of which The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are the first two installments. Although each work within the cycle presents an independent, self-contained tale, they are all connected through characters and storylines, creating thematic and narrative links. Each individual installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series can be read in any order, enabling the reader to explore the labyrinth of stories along different paths which, when woven together, lead to the heart of the narrative.’

The Prisoner of Heaven is actually what you get when a stand-alone novel sells 15 million copies and the author decides to write sequels without a worthwhile new story to tell. The Shadow of the Wind was a publishing phenomenon, the most successful modern Spanish novel by far, and a massive international best-seller. It told a captivating story of Gothic intrigue and romance set around the world of publishing, bookselling and rare and dangerous books. The novel took place in post-war Barcelona, a country still under the fascist dictatorship of General Franco, and mixed crime, mystery, romance and tantalizing hints of the uncanny.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón next wrote a really surprising prequel set in 1920s Barcelona, diving headlong into metafictional weirdness, offering bolder hints of the supernatural and reveling in a tangled labyrinth of unreliable narration wrapped in a thrilling pulp poetic sensibility. And there he should have left it. For The Prisoner of Heaven picks up after the end of The Shadow of the Wind, with Daniel now a young husband and father, deeply concerned about his friend Fermin Romero de Torres, who played an important role in the first book in the cycle.

While Fermin is troubled that his own wartime past will prevent him legally marrying, Daniel has his own domestic problems; he has found a letter in his wife’s coat from a former suitor professing undying love. Meanwhile a menacing figure appears in the Sempere and Son bookshop, purchases a rare and expensive copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, signs it and leaves it for Fermin.

All this is intriguing enough, but is quickly dismissed, only to be hastily resolved, or left hanging for another sequel, as most of the book is taken up with an extended flashback in which Fermin tells Daniel about his horrific wartime experiences, including incarceration as a political prisoner. Also inmate was David Martin, protagonist of The Angel’s Game. His role in this new book casts into question the entire narrative of that previous entry. Equally Fermin’s narrative causes Daniel to question aspects of his own family history.

The Shadow of the Wind This all amounts to a lot of in-filling, with much of the story unfolding as sardonic comedy. There is none of the unreliable narration or Gothic suspense of previous books, though there are a handful of decidedly nasty moments of brutality and torture. After building up the mysterious book purchaser as an event of great significance the resolution is an anti-climax. A new female character is introduced very near the end, but has nothing at all of significance to add to the half-formed tale. The suspicion is that she is there to set up yet another volume, particularly as she bears a shocking similarity to another character. Yes, it’s the old soap opera gambit – when the plot is flagging bring on a hitherto unsuspected relative.

Daniel resolves his concerns regarding the direction of his wife’s heart, but a mystery remains as to the intention of her suitor. An epilogue suggests that a character thought vanished is really not so far away, and a broken statue hints at more puzzles to come.

The final words are…

…knowing that the story, his story, has not ended.
It has only just begun.

Oh dear. Thus The Prisoner of Heaven ends without telling any significant story of its own. It is more akin to a collection of deleted scenes edited together to make a ‘special episode’ of the TV show. The narrative is all gap-plugging or set-up, adding nothing of significance to either previous novel, both of which really were self-contained tales. Despite what the forward claims, The Prisoner of Heaven is far from it, reading like half a book (it is half the length of either of its predecessors). That final line suggests that Zafón is set on dragging his characters through multiple further volumes, like the serial pulp fictions David Martin himself once wrote. The law of diminishing returns amply applies.

I liked The Shadow of the Wind very much loved The Angel’s Game. The Prisoner of Heaven is mediocre. Anyone coming to this first, as the forward suggests is possible, would be unlikely to want to read the other two novels. I certainly won’t be reading the fourth, fifth, sixth…

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