Monday, 30 July 2012

Review: The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Let's start this blog post with a lie and say that it's not very often that there is a book I'm actually so excited about I will rush out to buy it the moment I hear about it.

There. I said it would be a falsehood. If I'm honest, there have been at least three instances this year where I've got all screamy-fan-girl about a recently published novel. What does surprise me, though (considering that I am the same individual who camped outside her local Waterstones to in order be the first person to buy The Prisoner of Azkaban, indeed, doing so before said business had made any provision for such pre-teen nut-cases) is that I don't spend my spare time loitering on the websites of my favourite authors, hitting refresh every 15 minutes*. Instead, these days, I'm content to let the ether (or, you know, Twitter) waft towards me the news that a long anticipated novel is about to be released.

The reason for this is probably disappointment. No matter how blindingly awesome a book might be, if you've hyped yourself up to the point of squatting in a bookshop's doorway about it, there is a good chance that the final product may not quite live up to your highest of hopes. These days I try to preserve my enjoyment of things by taking things at a slightly steadier pace. And, despite this, The Prisoner of Heaven still disappointed me.

For those of you who don't know Ruiz Zafón's work, The Prisoner of Heaven is the third in a loose cycle of novels set in Barcelona and revolving around a place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first two are The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game. In it's actuality, The Prisoner of Heaven is more or less a direct sequel to The Shadow of the Wind; the narrator is the same, one Daniel Sempere, and the events of the novel concern the past of his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, as well as revealing some of the mystery surrounding David Martín, the cursed narrator of The Angel's Game. Although the spiel is that these books can be read in 'any order', I would advise the curious to read at least one of the earlier books before attempting this one - especially as even the blurb of The Prisoner... advises the reader to 'find out what happens next'.

And that, really, is the main weakness of The Prisoner. The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game were just too bloody good: stand alone novels that drew on each other's themes, intertwined with each other in the cleverest, most elegant of ways. They really can be read in any order, or separately, with no reference to each other at all. The Prisoner... for all it's worth, is not complete in its own right. Unlike in the two earlier novels, the story arc does not complete itself, questions - vital questions - are left unresolved and I get the worrying feeling it's just going to be springboard into the next book in the sequence. 

All that said, it's still a cracking good read. The mystery set up and explored is done well, suspense is maintained and Ruiz Zafón gives his usual display of artful storytelling and truly decent human characters without ever flinching from showing us horror, or veering into sentimentality. As far as a novel goes, it's marvellous. Written by any other writer, I would probably be gushing praise and enthusiasm for the style, the plot and the sequel.It lacks, however, the depth and scope of its two prequels, lacks something of their mystery or grandeur. Ruiz Zafón's style seems diminished too: perhaps in search of slicker, harder prose, he has abandoned some of the imagery that pervaded the first too novels, abandoned, too, the intricate, torturous subplots. Some people might consider this a bonus; I just wondered if he had found a different translator**. 

Actually, because of the 'tighter' language, the lack of lyricism, I found it difficult to believe that the Daniel Sempere of this novel was quite the same Daniel Sempere of The Shadow of the Wind. Of course, he is older here, has a wife and son, and he is less naive, also - aware of the political darkness surrounding him, aware of the immanent bankruptcy of Sempere & Sons - but his increased worldliness, in my opinion actually undermines the darkness and horror shown in other chapters, as well as his own sympathy as a character. It saddens me also that, while the dangerous and redemptive power of story was still a major theme in this book, he pulled off nothing quite so engaging as the characters of Julián Carax or David Martín.

So, in conclusion, my advice would be to read it and enjoy it because it's still probably one of the better books of 2012, but as to one of the better Ruiz Zafón books? I'm not so sure.

*okay, not that often...
** He hasn't. All three novels are translated by Lucia Graves.

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