……….You were wrong Michelangelo. Wrong, wrong, wrong, when you said “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark!”
“Expectation is the root of all heartache!”
Trust Shakespeare to hit the nail on the head! Sometimes, we are all our own worst enemies!
I ended up in a position of feeling slightly disappointed in “The Prisoner Of Heaven” and it was all my own fault – because it’s a really, really, good book! And therein lies the conundrum – how do you get yourself to a place where a book is really, really, good and you’re disappointed?!! There may be danger in setting expectations too low – but they need to be realistic and tempered – and my expectations of the new Ruiz Zafon weren’t!
The Prisoner Of Heaven is the third book based in Barcelona around the Sempere and Sons bookshop and the Cemetery Of Forgotten Books. It follows the story of Daniel Sempere and his friend and colleague, Fermin, as they attempt to unravel the story behind a mysterious visitor to the bookshop, who buys a rare and expensive edition of “The Count Of Monte Cristo”, then leaves it as a gift for Fermin with an enigmatic note addressed to him. The book then explores Fermin’s past and the connections between him, Daniel and Daniel’s family and of course David Martin, who was at the centre of the last Zafon book, “The Angels Game!”.
Essentially the story ties together a number of strands which were left or which overlapped between The Angels Game and the earlier novel which introduced The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books, “Shadow Of The Wind”. From that perspective, while you could certainly read this as a stand alone, you get much more from it I think if you’ve read the other two books beforehand! The connection to those two novels and to The Count Of Monte Cristo is maintained throughout the narrative. As Daniel and Fermin unravel his past and the lives of the other characters who inhabited it, the connections between them become stronger both in terms of their relationship and in terms of their shared histories.
Like every other book of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s it’s wonderfully well written. The words really do flow easily off the page and into your mind – for the sheer physical pleasure you can get from the very act of reading, you’ll find few do that better than Zafon. I loved the act of reading this novel – it’s just one of those effortless and relaxing pleasures! The threads he draws between the books and between the characters are always on the right side of complex – you need to concentrate to follow the complex bits but they are not so labyrinthine that you need to take notes! As good as the characters are who inhabit the novel, none of them is more influential on the feel of the novel than Barcelona itself. Throughout the book you feel its presence under the cloak of a Meditteranean winter and under the shroud of a post-Franco Spain, awash with spies and security apparatchiks.
It’s a great story and the use of the ideas from The Count Of Monte Cristo fit really well. Knowing the stories of both Shadow and Angels Game meant I was constantly muttering ‘ah’ and ‘oh yes’ and ‘I get that’ as different snippets are revealed about those narratives and in particular about the characters of David Martin and Isabella. I know I enjoyed it because I couldn’t put it down – I read it in less than 24 hours. And yet when I reached the end I was slightly disappointed.
And that’s where those expectations took their toll. I’d picked it up with such anticipation and joy that I think I’d already decided it would be the best book I’d read this year because….well….it’s a Zafon! Alas it didn’t quite hit that height ( at the moment for me that accolade is still held by Laurent Binet’s brilliant work of genius HHhH!). Consequently it actually took me a couple of days to get over the disappointment and work out why I felt as I did!
Now with hindsight and perspective I can see that I set the book up for a fall – albeit unwittingly. I’d made an unfair and naive assumption that it would be right up there on a different level to pretty much anything else, just like his other two novels – not for a second did it occur to me that it might not be!
So in summary this is a great book, telling a great story about a fascinating place with a cast of mercurial and utterly engaging characters. Is it as good as the other two? Well, I don’t think it is, but it’s not far off. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. But read the other two first and you’ll come to know the wonderful world of Sempere and The Cemetery Of Lost Books – they’ll take you on a journey that you’ll never forget and that you won’t regret!
As for me I’ve learned a lesson about managing my expectations. As Jodi Picoult wrote in Nineteen Minutes “There are two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations”!
When the next Zafon comes out, and already I can’t wait(!!!), I’ll try to be a man with an improved reality!