Set in part in some of the darker moments of Barcelona’s history, The Prisoner of Heaven sees Daniel, a young bookseller’s son, team up with Fermín, a man whose past contains more than one enigmatic episode, in pursuit of the solution to the mystery behind the appearance of an evil-looking creature seemingly straight from an even murkier past.
Third number in Barcelona series
If this rings a bell, it’s because not all that much has changed in the setting and characters since The Shadow of the Wind, Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s immensely popular earlier book. The Prisoner of Heaven, published last year in Spain and released in English translation this summer, is one of three volumes (following The Angel’s Game; a fourth and final episode is apparently forthcoming) in a cycle of novels opened by The Shadow of the Wind, and whose common strand is as much mid-century Barcelona as the quasi-magical universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
It is now 1957. Daniel is happily married to his childhood sweetheart and the proud father of a young son, but, although it’s nearing Christmas, the old Sempere and Son bookshop is suffering from the doom and gloom of the times. Meanwhile, his old friend, protector and colleague Fermín is preparing for his wedding to the ever-pious Bernarda, which, far from cheering him up, causes him to adopt the looks of “a cockroach stuffed in a raincoat”.
This, and the arrival of a grim figure resembling “a tree trunk lashed by the wind” with “a face lined by age and the unmistakable trace of misfortune” and “the cold eyes of a bird of prey, patient and calculating”, unleashes a series of events all purportedly shedding light on Fermín’s past but also, eventually and unexpectedly, on Daniel’s understanding of his own origins.
There ensue hidden family secrets, deadly enemy feuds, a grim prison fortress, escapes in the manner of The Count of Monte Cristo and murders over cups of poisoned chamomile tea in a book-long to-and-fro between Franco-era 1957 and the civil-war Barcelona of the late 1930s.
A few pitfalls in the story
Those who have read The Shadow of the Wind and survived its well-crafted, multi-layered intertwining of plots and subplots will perhaps miss the complexity of the narrative, its atmospheric depiction of early 20th-century and wartime Barcelona, and the multitude of larger-than-life characters.
As a sequel, The Prisoner of Heaven opens doors and unveils mysteries one didn’t even know existed and, all things considered, could just as well not have existed. It closes leaving too many loose threads, too, which could mean either that the author has lost some of his narrative steam or, more optimistically and quite likely, that the book sets the scene for the next instalment.
The Prisoner of Heaven can also be treated as a stand-alone book, in which case the Zafón novice may perceive the same drawback that some of the twists in the tale have been conjured for their own sake, but still enjoy the short, straightforward, linear plot with its pinch of mystery and good dose of slapstick humour.
Buy the book
The Prisoner of Heaven
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012
Paperback, 288 pages