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Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Prisoner of Heaven
Harper / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-062-20628-2
Publication Date: 07-10-2012
288 Pages; $25.99
Date Reviewed:07-20-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index General Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, Mystery  

We like to think of story, and in particular novels, as a linear form. One event follows the next, in much the same manner as we experience our individual lives. The problem with this perception, of course, is that our lives insect with those of others in a manner that is utterly non-linear. Even when we want to get beyond mere linearity, the temptation is to see the whole in two dimensions, and many fine novels manage this. But again, this falls short of actuality. Our lives unfurl in not just one, or two, or even three, but four dimensions, a vision that is quite difficult to render in prose, where one word, at best, follows the other.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has managed, in 'The Shadow of the Wind,' 'The Angel's Game' and now, in 'The Prisoner of Heaven' to give us story in four dimensions. Each novel truly stands on its own. But together they offer a grand and visionary reading experience, filled with the pleasures of plot and character we know from our reading past, but executed with a subtle sense of intersection, involvement and perspective that point towards our literary future. Zafón is not simply working on a canvas; he's building a literary cathedral.

Taken on its own, 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is an engaging, even enchanting mix of sweetness and horror. We meet Daniel Sempere, a young father who works at his father's bookstore in the Barcelona of 1958. Working with him is Fermin Romero de Torres, his best friend and headed towards a wedding. A visitor to the bookstore makes an ominous purchase, and with it, lives are revealed — and changed. Fermin tells his story, from the Barcelona of 1939, as the fascist regime of Franco made a habit of jailing those with whom it was displeased.

Zafón's prose in this novel is light and consistently, quotably witty. "'I think today will be the day. Today our luck will change,' I proclaimed on the wings of the first coffee of the day, pure optimism in a liquid state." Zafón is smart enough to limn from Chandler and yet find his own original voice. The writing feels lighter than air but always full of the stuff of real life, the emotions that matter to us, the joys and terrors we face in our own souls. Even when Fermin is telling the story of the worst days of the Franco regime, a tale of filthy, wretched horror, there is an optimism embedded in the words and phrasing so that the dark story does not shadow our souls. 'The Prisoner of Heaven' manages to make literary fiction joyful, free and fun.

The stories here have an intense draw, intertwining the very personal demons of Fermin and Daniel and weaving them together in a seamless smart whole that is striking, surprising and compelling. For a relatively short novel, Zafón manages to pack in a lot of plot without making the whole affair feel overstuffed. The soul of this novel is Fermin, who meets adversity with an undercutting, wry joke and a pessimistic confidence that though the design of life seems destined for unhappiness, it's entirely possible to pull the wool over life's eyes and find joy. But perhaps not in his own case.

As this is Fermin's novel, we get to know him intimately, and he is a fascinating character, a man who has had hardship imposed upon him and come though it, only to find himself flummoxed by his own fears. Daniel, on the other hand, finds himself in comfort and gives in to his inner distrust. Both characters are complemented by women who are their worthy equals. Zafón shakes these characters out with a great deal joy. This book feels fulfillingly comfortable, even as it takes some seriously chances with where it sends these characters we have grown to love.

For all this, Zafón provides a very nice denouement, a conclusion that leaves the reader both satisfied and wanting more; which is good because not only is there more out there already, there is more to come as well. Within the grand scheme set up by the first two books, 'The Prisoner of Heaven' takes on both meaning and power. It's certainly possible to read these books in any order, but having read them in the order they were published, I'm suggesting reader do so as well.

Seeing 'The Shadow of the Wind' and 'The Angel's Game' slot together as you read what prove to be the revelatory passages of 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is an altogether new kind of reading experience. This is not a series of accumulation that leads to confrontation. Instead, it is a collection of stories that offer revelation, as 'The Shadow in the Wind' and in particular 'The Angel's Game' become darker, lighter, deeper and much more interesting by virtue of the stories in this novel. And while this book offers a satisfying reading experience in itself, it points towards even more revelations in the subsequent volume. As Zafón builds his literary cathedral, each entry effectively re-writes the others, and opens them up to a larger world, just as each day in our own lives revises those that have preceded it. 'The Prisoner of Heaven' is ultimately, a liberation by — and from — the novel itself.

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