True identity can hold one a prisoner of the past.
Back Blurb of The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona, 1957. It is Christmas, and Daniel Sempere and his wife, Bea, have much to celebrate. They have a beautiful new baby son named Julián, and their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to be wed. But their joy is eclipsed when a mysterious stranger visits the Sempere bookshop and threatens to divulge a terrible secret that has been buried for two decades in the city's dark past.
His appearance plunges Fermín and Daniel into a dangerous adventure that will take them back to the 1940s and the early days of Franco's dictatorship. The terrifying events of that time launch them on a search for the truth that will put into peril everything they love, and will ultimately transform their lives.
My two centsI have heard nothing but raves about Ruiz Zafón's books so I was slightly wary ... because what if I hated it? Ha! Apparently that wasn't a problem as I read this practically straight through! I just came up for air and water, so to speak. It was a Friday, and I just got back from work ... plopped in a chair and started reading, reluctantly put it down to eat some dinner ... gosh it was good! I continued to race through this until I finished in the wee hours of the morning.
At the heart is the mystery of one man's true identity. It opens in a gloomy bookstore in the 1950s, in post-Civil War Barcelona. A dodgy stranger comes in, buys the collector's edition of The Count of Monte Cristo (the most expensive book in the bookstore!) and asks Daniel Sempere to deliver it to Fermín. The intriguing inscription: For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and holds the key to the future. Thus begins Daniel's uncovering of Fermín's dark past.
The story is told in flashbacks, with Daniel narrating, and events span from the dark days of Franco's dictatorship and the resulting civil war from the 1940s up to the book's present day 1950s. With Fermín wanting to marry and live a legitimate life, he has no choice but to make his true identity known -- even if it means divulging terrible secrets and truths of even the people closest and dearest to him.
While I was reading, I wasn't quite sure how to describe it; the words historical fiction, mystery and fantasy don't do it justice and I am hard pressed to categorize it so neatly. What I am sure about it that this book has a lot going for it:
- It feels like a more modern take of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's lushly descriptive storytelling with hints of magical realism. I have yet to figure out the Cemetery of Forgotten Books storyline but the quick introduction to it is more than enough to intrigue me.
- The themes are age-old: identity, revenge, redemption ... all brought to life in Ruiz Zafon's fascinating characters. Aside from Fermín, I particularly enjoyed the characters of his seemingly mad mentor David Martin, the pious Isabella, and the self-centred governor-writer Mauricio Valls.
- This is a book after the bibliophile's heart. There are especial references to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. I couldn't help but go "wow" as Ruiz Zafon deftly introduced this classic and put his own spin on it. (Obviously I am a Dumas fan and I obviously don't want to give too much away either.)
- The storytelling is absorbing. I couldn't put this down because the pacing was well executed: characters coming into their own; different pieces of the truth coming together slowly yet not quite ... so of course I really didn't have a choice but to keep going!
- While I don't know much about Spain's history, the similarities with various Latin American country histories with dictatorship rules have always fascinated me. (I remembered a similar -- and really good read -- Perla by Carolina de Robertis which was set in Argentina.)
- The ending, my goodness, the ending! It just begs for the fourth book, and I just lapped it all up with the resolve to hunt down Ruiz's two other books (Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game) so I can get all these stories straight.
- Lastly I have to rave about the gorgeous cover of the copy I have -- gilt embossing, dramatic red and black imagery, and ragged page edges. It captures the ambiance of the story: one of the sheer beauty of humanity yet with a menacing darkness to it.
A quick disclaimer: I don't have the backstories of the two other books in this cycle of books, called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The first page explains that while each book is self-contained, the three are interconnected in their characters and storylines.
I received a copy of the book from the publisher in order to participate in this blog tour.