The Prisoner of Heaven ★★★★☆
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Genre(s) | Mystery, Historical Fiction
Goodreads Rating | 3.98
Humpo Show Rating | 4.00
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Published: First published in Spanish in 2011, my English language edition is 2012 (translation by Lucia Graves)
A secret has lain hidden for two decades, but when a mystifying shopper makes an appearance in the Sempere bookshop an epic tale of imprisonment, betrayal, murder and love begins to unravel.
The book is a sequel to The Shadow of the Wind and also has ties with the prequel, The Angel’s Game. David Martín, the narrator of Angel’s Game is the titular character of this novel, and the events that take place in The Prisoner of Heaven call into question the reliability of Martín’s narration in Angel’s Game.
The introduction provides the reader with a brisk recap of how things were left in Zafón’s first novel. Daniel Sempere, his wife Bea and their baby Julian are living a family life, and Daniel’s best friend, Fermín, is about to get married to Bernarda. The happy and content lives they’re leading is interrupted when a mysterious man enters the Sempere bookshop and insists on buying the shop’s most expensive volume on display – a beautiful illustrated edition of The Count of Monte Cristo – and then inscribes the book with the words:
‘For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future’.
The arrival and exit of this secretive figure elicits curiosity and worry in equal measure from Daniel. When he tells Fermín about this experience it has a devastating effect on his friend, and it forces Fermín to recall the story of his years as a prisoner in the infamous Montjuïc Castle. During the days of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1940s, political enemies were held prisoner, with many of them eliminated once they had outlasted their usefulness to the regime.
Fermín, previously a wise-cracking sidekick of Daniel, takes centre stage in Prisoner of Heaven as his complex and dramatic backstory is revealed. It is ostensibly a book about Fermín, an account of his prison time, the story of his return to Barcelona and the characters that are intertwined in the history of the Sempere family.
The depiction of Montjuïc Castle and the horrific suffering that the prisoners were forced to endure is startling and gripping. Zafón is incredibly adept at describing places that are detestable, filled with dirt and filth and corruption, and making it come to life in such a way that fascinates and repulses the reader in equal measure. It is idiosyncratic of his writing that permeates every page, it is full of flowing lyricism that makes the reader feel as if they were reading a piece of artwork. The Kafka-esque prison is symbolic of the Francoist regime in Spain during the ’30s and ’40s where one storyline is set. The Spanish Civil War (1939) is close in the rear-view mirror for Fermín and his stint in prison – which provides the main storyline – is coupled with the present day Barcelona in 1957, where Fermín is telling his story to Daniel.
Mauricio Valls, the director of the prison in Montjuïc Castle is the character which fascinated me the most in Prisoner of Heaven. He is an educated man who aspires to be a celebrated author, and he attempts to manipulate the ever-increasing delirious David to write him a novel that will satisfy his craving to be known as a famed writer. He is a dangerous and powerful man who does not hesitate to take dubious and criminal measures to achieve his ambitious desires. He is an utterly compelling character and often steals the scenes he is in. I was a little disappointed with the unresolved and ambitious nature of his story arc, although I am crossing my fingers that Zafón brings more light to his story’s conclusion in the upcoming, and final, novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits.
Zafón masterfully weaves The Count of Monte Cristo into this saga, and that reflects the type of book he has written. With undeserved imprisonments, clever escapes, a fabulous treasure and adventure, Prisoner of Heaven is a novel that incorporates everything I love about Zafón’s writing: history, mystery, transporting to fascinating places, and the creation of absorbing characters. It is a novel that readers of Zafón must read, and it absolutely enraptured me.
The Humpo Show | Richard