Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was the first installment of the cycle of books that were set in a world where the Cemetery Of Forgotten Books exists. It told the story of Daniel Sempere, who is taken to the mysterious Cemetery in Barcelona by his father, who owns a bookstore called Sempere and Sons. It is in this maze of books that Daniel finds one that changes his life forever: The Shadow of the Wind written by Julian Carax.
Much of the first novel, which spanned 21 years (1945-1961), focuses on Daniel and Julian’s interweaving lives. Shadow became a runaway bestseller when it was released, selling more than 15 million copies worldwide, thanks to Zafón’s spellbinding, elaborate and dramatic storytelling style. It was then followed up with a prequel — The Angel’s Game — which was much darker than its predecessor with plenty of drama, dead bodies and eerie characters that made one’s flesh crawl.
The Prisoner of Heaven comes as the third installment of this dramatic saga. Set a year after Shadow ended, in December 1954, it is Christmastime in Barcelona. Sempere Senior and Daniel are both looking for ways to replenish their dwindling profits at the bookshop. And then a limping stranger (with a porcelain hand no less) enters the bookshop, and buys a rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo — it’s the most expensive book in the store.
On being handed a thousand francs, Daniel says that he doesn’t have change, to which the stranger responds casually: “Keep the change for my next visit.” But he doesn’t take the book; instead he asks Daniel to give it to his good friend, the roguish and loveable Fermin, first introduced in Shadow. The stranger inscribes the book thus: “For Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future. 13” After that, Daniel says: “Then I heard the tinkle of the doorbell and when I looked up, the stranger was gone.”
Of course, the stranger’s cryptic inscription is enough to rouse young Daniel’s curiosity, and throwing caution to the wind, he shuts the bookstore and follows the stranger through the weaving streets of Barcelona. His reasoning for doing so is simple: “I hung the CLOSED sign on the door and locked up, determined to follow the stranger through the crowd. I knew that if my father returned and discovered that I had abandoned my post — on the one occasion that he’d left me alone and bang in the middle of a sales drought — I’d be in serious trouble. But I’d think of a convenient excuse along the way. Better to face my father’s temper than be consumed by the anxiety left in me by that sinister character, and not know what was the true intent of his business with Fermin.”
What follows this eerie incident forms the rest of the book; there are flashbacks into Fermin’s days as a prisoner languishing at the dreadful prison at Montjuïc Castle, where prisoners were fed “a half bowl of some cold, greasy, greyish gruel of indeterminate provenance and rancid taste, which, after a few days, and with hunger cramps in one’s stomach, eventually became odourless and thus easier to get down” and where “once a month prisoners handed their dirty clothes and were given another set which had supposedly been plunged into boiling water for a minute although the bugs didn’t seem to have noticed it.”
It is at the Castle that Fermin meets David Martin — and it is ascertained that Fermin’s initial meeting with Daniel in Shadow wasn’t accidental at all. It also turns out that the narrative crafted in The Angel’s Game by David Martin was not — and could not — have been accurate, since it is revealed that David simply wasn’t quite all there. And then there are other revelations too: Daniel’s mother did not die of a mysterious illness as was narrated in Shadow; she was in fact poisoned.
However, despite its relation to its sequels, Prisoner can well be read as a standalone book (although it is best to read the prequels beforehand). Zafón’s writing style is more succinct in this one in comparison to its predecessors (the book is substantially shorter than the others), but he does launch into several elaborate descriptive passages from time. But because they are written with such zeal, they complement the narrative instead of distracting from it.
There are new characters introduced, and as well as subplots, including a love triangle between Daniel, his wife and another man, which are all woven swiftly through the book. However, while the book does centre on Daniel, it is Fermin’s life that is unravelled in this volume, which makes it all the more captivating.
Unfortunately, though, the book ends with a cliff-hanger — which means that there is yet another sequel to look forward to. Depending on how much patience you have in learning about the secrets that continue to haunt Daniel, this can either be a good thing or a bad one. But for fans of the series, it’s definitely a good one, since it means that there is more from the master to look forward to.
The Prisoner Of Heaven By Carlos Ruiz Zafón HarperCollins, US ISBN 9780062206299 304pp.