The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1950s / 1930s / Spain / Prisons / Bookstores / Books on Books / Secret Identities / Dumas /
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (3/12/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of a prisoner, a bookstore, and a mysterious stranger.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction,
Do I like the cover?: Yes and no. Yes, it is super pretty and atmospheric. No, it doesn't capture the feel of the book.
I'm reminded of...: Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago
First line: That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you're a Zafón fan or like books about books.
Why did I get this book?: Everyone I know raves about Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind.
Review: I have long wanted to read Zafón's novels; everyone I know raves about The Shadow of the Wind. This is the third book in Zafón's quartet, and the book opens with a promise that each book can be read as a standalone, and in any order. I hear that about almost all books in a series, so I was dubious, but I inhaled this book without any confusion.
This is a book lover's book, a novel with a story-in-a-story motif, vibrant characters -- including villainous villains -- and evocative locales. Opening Christmas 1957 in Barcelona, Spain, we follow Daniel Sempere, who runs a family bookstore with his father. Amid anxieties about a letter to his wife from her ex-fiancee, Daniel is chilled by the arrival of a creepy man who purchases one of the most expensive books in his store, a gorgeous vintage copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. More disturbingly, the stranger dedicates it to Daniel's friend Fermín Romero de Torres, who in turn shares the story of his violent imprisonment during Franco's regime in 1930 -- a story that echoes Dumas' classic tale.
I raced through this book -- it's about 300 pages in paperback, but reads like 150! -- and found myself captivated. Zafón mixes clever black humor -- usually snappy comebacks by the moody Fermín -- with lurid descriptions of prison life. There's almost a magical quality to the story without it going straight to magical realism; a fantasy element without fantasy. Perhaps it's the mood that harkens to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo -- grandiose adventure, seemingly impossible scenarios, bigger-than-life personalities. I didn't know where this story intersected with the previous two novels but didn't feel like I was missing anything; now I'm eager to read both before the fourth and final book comes out.
Sadly, there's no biography for the translator, Lucia Graves, in my edition. (I'm intensely curious about translators -- they shape a story, intentionally or not!) Graves is the daughter of Robert Graves, and was nominated for an award for her translation of another Zafón book. Particularly intriguing for me is Graves' connection to the setting and era of this book: Graves lived in Majorca during Franco's dictatorship and later, as an adult when first married.
For those new to Zafón, consider this -- fans might not think this is the best one to start with, but as someone who plunged in and came out happy, I think it works! Those who like historical fiction that is a bitterly fun and a little dark will like this -- while it's not The Orphan Master's Son-level of black comedy, it's up there, so if you enjoyed that one, you'll like this too!
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Prisoner of Heaven to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 4/12.