For the past few weeks I’ve been working my way through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Following The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, the third novel is The Prisoner of Heaven. In contrast to the other books in the series, this one is fairly short, at only 278 pages. But while this slim book feels more like a novella or an interlude, still packs a punch.
The Prisoner of Heaven picks up less than two years after the main events of The Shadow of the Wind. It’s Christmastime, and Fermín Romero de Torres is about to get married. But our usually chipper Fermín has been on edge, and it’s not just wedding nerves. One day, while Daniel Sempere is working in the book shop, a strange man comes in asking after Fermín. Suspicious, he decides to confront his friend. Fermín finally reveals his past.
Going back to 1939, we learn more about Fermín’s horrifying past, including his time locked up in prison. There, he met David Martín, the main character from The Angel’s Game, as well as the man from the book shop. These prisoners were tortured and even blackmailed by the man in charge of their prison, Mauricio Valls. The time spent in prison can be hard to read, but they also lead to some shocking revelations with repercussions decades into the future.
Eventually, The Prisoner of Heaven returns to the late 1950s, where yet more surprises await.
At first, The Prisoner of Heaven feels like a light and quick read. Maybe it’s the Christmas setting, or maybe it’s the short chapters, but the first 50 pages fly by. However, for the bulk of the rest of the book, the subject matter becomes fairly heavy.
For me, it was a fun surprise that Fermín and David knew each other. Well, fun may not be the best descriptor, given that they met in a corrupt and dangerous prison early in Franco’s dictatorship. But in any case, their connection helps the series to feel a lot more cohesive. The first two books felt largely separate from one another, but now that we’re nearing the end of the series, I’m starting to see how it all fits together.
Like The Angel’s Game, this novel often treads into grim territory. Whereas the previous book delved into the murky waters mental health and grief, The Prison of Heaven starkly shows pain and suffering. We saw in The Shadow of the Wind that Fermín suffers from PTSD; here, we see some of the horrors that would haunt him years later. Other mental health issues, like depression and schizophrenia, also come into play.
The prison that Fermín and David are in is representative of the turbulent and dismal times Spain was in at that time. After three years of the Spanish Civil War, this book takes places shortly after Francisco Franco won the war and became a fascist dictator. His dictatorial rule would last until 1975 – and indeed sets the tone most of this series – but it seemed to be most violent during those early years.
While I think it’s important to learn about these issues and see them reflected in fiction, it can also be hard to read. That’s certainly true here, even though I wouldn’t call this a particularly gory or gruesome book. But the harsh events and grim backdrop do make this book harder to enjoy. It’s my least favorite in the series so far, more due to the subject matter than any issues with quality.
The Prisoner of Heaven is also a very short book, at least by Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s standards! While his previous two books are around 500 pages (and the final novel is over 800 pages!), this one feels oddly short at only 278 pages. While many books can feel complete at a shorter page length, with this one, the narrative feels a bit rushed and unfinished. A lot was packed in, but I didn’t feel as invested, and it seemed that some events could have been filled in more. However, it does seem that this book is setting up a lot for the finale, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. I guess we’ll see! The Prisoner of Heaven feels like an interlude, but perhaps the last movement will make it all worth it.
Two final notes about this book: First, The Prisoner of Heaven is the only book in the series so far not to be named after another fictional novel within the story. In this case, the title actual refers to a character: David Martín. And speaking of David, the previous book, The Angel’s Game, left me a tad confused. Here, that confusion is cleared up with a very specific explanation that radically altered my understanding of his character and of the last book. I won’t tell you here, but it was a powerful revelation that brought The Angel’s Game into perspective.
The Prisoner of Heaven is a relatively short book, almost an interlude between acts, and yet it still brings a lot of depth. It’s a dark novel, though in a different way from The Angel’s Game, but it also starts tying characters and events together. I’m excited to see how everything wraps up in the last installment of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. Stay tuned for my review!
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