Friday, July 27, 2012

On Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Prisoner of Heaven, and my approach to reading series

Sometimes I like reading novels in series out of order. Curiously, this ties in with my interest in historical fiction. Not only do I enjoy following characters and their adventures in their proper chronological progression, but I also like starting with the newest volume and learning later about the characters' past histories – which sit waiting for me to discover them via earlier books.  When I do this, I know there will be references I won't pick up on, but if the author has done a good job, they'll intrigue rather than perplex me.

Despite the fact that many friends name The Shadow of the Wind as an all-time-favorite, I hadn't read anything by Carlos Ruiz Zafón until now. A note at the beginning of The Prisoner of Heaven describes it as an "independent, self-contained tale" and that "each individual instalment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series can be read in any order." In other words, starting with volume three is fair game, so that's what I did.

The novel opens in a place where any bibliophile would feel comfortable. It's Christmastime in Barcelona of 1957, where Daniel Sempere lives with his beautiful wife Bea, his new baby son, and his father.  Times are tough, and the Sempere & Sons bookshop needs to bring in more business. When an elderly stranger with a heavy limp drops in to buy an expensive illustrated copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, however, Daniel finds his troubles have only begun. The visitor has a message for Daniel's good friend Fermín Romero de Torres which he leaves inscribed in the book – and which has dark implications for Fermín, he of the normally jovial outlook and deliciously phrased ripostes. I love how Ruiz Zafón can present Fermín’s appearance in just a few words; who can resist knowing more about a funny guy whose “body seemed mostly composed of cartilage and attitude”?

Fermín’s backstory is exactly what the novel proceeds to reveal. This story-within-a-story is set toward the end of Spain’s Civil War, circa 1939, deep within Montjuïc Castle: a fortress overlooking Barcelona where political prisoners languish, die, and rot, forgotten by most, and with no realistic hope of escape. With a setting out of a sinister nightmare, and a crafty, compelling plotline with a strong nod to Dumas, the pages essentially turn themselves. As they all speak amongst themselves in their dank, filthy cells, the personalities of Fermín and his fellow “tenants”– which include a novelist named David Martín – spring forth with grim, sarcastic humor. It’s a testament to the author’s storytelling prowess that I found my attention transfixed by these characters while simultaneously wanting to get the hell out of there.

That’s all I’ll say about what happens. Does the novel stand on its own? Well, yes and no. While The Prisoner of Heaven does tell a self-contained story, it begins amid a larger tale and doesn’t end at the end, either. (There will be a fourth novel; I’m not giving anything away by saying that.) As a short book with a swift-moving 278 pages, it feels very much like an interlude rather than the full experience. The “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” hinted at within the initial note is mentioned, although this mysterious place didn’t have anywhere near the impact on this newcomer I felt it would have, if I had read the The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game first.

If the point to my reading it was to whet my appetite for the earlier books, though, it did the trick. I'll be getting to them sooner now rather than later.  I also can’t help but think how much fun this novel must have been to write, and to translate. (Lucia Graves' skillful translation is anything but stiff.) It’s a novel for those who love words, inventive turns of phrase, and literature as a whole.

The Prisoner of Heaven was published by Harper on July 10th at $25.99 in hardcover; in the UK, the publisher is Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99).

18 comments:

  1. If anyone's interested, there is a short story "Rose of Fire" that sets up the whole series available for free for e-reader from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

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    1. Thanks - and oops - I knew that but completely forgot to mention it! It's sitting on my Kindle waiting for the wireless to be turned on... will go read it now.

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  2. I'm reading it now and am transfixed. It's beautifully bound, isn't it?

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    1. Yes - it is a gorgeous book!

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  3. I have never read this author before. One day I really must!!

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    1. That's exactly why I took it for review - because doing so would oblige me to read one of his books at long last!

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  4. So excited to read this...LOVED the two previous books and didn't realize a new one was coming out! Thanks for making my day, Sarah! Off to find that short story....

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    1. Oh good - happy to spread the news! I just finished the story... it provides some background on the origins of the Cemetery.

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  5. I also enjoy reading historical novels out of order and thought I was the only one. Nice to know I'm not. :)

    The novel sounds fascinating. The Spanish Civil War is a period well worth reading and writing about, rather neglected in current fiction. I'll take a close look at this one. Thanks for reviewing it.

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    1. Glad to see I'm not alone either. I've often started historical mystery series out of order, because after a point it would take me too long to catch up. Some series extend for over 20 books!

      The author makes a nice contrast between the two eras, 1939 and 1957... the former dark and menacing, the latter more relaxed, but still shaped by the Civil War and its aftereffects.

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  6. The Shadow of the Wind is one of my absolute favourite books and yet i haven't read The Angels Game or this book yet. Must get around to it.

    I must say, I am just a little mortified a tthe thought of reading a series out of order knowingly. Not something I can do myself.

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    1. LOL, sorry to shock you, Marg! I know readers have different preferences on this.

      Most authors I know who write series would like them to be read in any order, and work hard so the books can stand alone. I take advantage of that! Otherwise it would be hard for them to find new readers, and make new sales, and often the first books in extended series are out of print. Fortunately not the case here.

      From what I've been reading, it would be ideal to have read at least Shadow of the Wind before this one.

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  7. It seems to me that if you're now inspired to go back and read Zafon's previous books, The Prisoner of Heaven has succeeded in drawing you into the general story of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Perhaps it's not ideal to read them "out of order", but it doesn't seem to have repelled you as a reader too much...

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    1. After reading this one, the characters intrigue me more than the Cemetery (although I'm curious about it). I own the other books, but the easiest way to fit anything into my schedule is for me to take it for review!

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  8. Thanks for this review Sarah. I have only read 'Shadow of the Wind' so far so it looks like I've got to expand my TBR list again by adding this to it!

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    1. It reads very fast... and the largish font helps!

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  9. Wow, that seems really weird to me. Reading the books of a series out of order?

    Then I remembered that what I like best about re-reading classic authors (like Dickens or Austen) is that, knowing what's coming, I can enjoy the authors' set-up even more.

    What geniuses.

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    1. That's part of it. But I think I developed this pattern back when I got absorbed in reading a series of 40 novels of which volume #3 was very elusive. I read nearly all of the others first; it was either that or wait for years until I found #3 somewhere. (Abebooks.com didn't exist back then.) Later volumes would only hint at what happened in that book - they didn't give the story away - and it got me intensely curious about what I was missing. When I finally found it and read it, it was like a mystery from the past was slowly becoming clear. And I love reading about mysteries from the past.

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