Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafon's new novel, "The Prisoner of Heaven", is the third in his series set in Barcelona. Taking place in 1957, with flashbacks to 1939, Zafon returns with young bookseller Daniel Sempere and his older friend, Fermin Romero de Torres. The two friends, celebrating Fermin's upcoming marriage to his long-time girlfriend, are faced with an uncomfortable fact: "Fermin Romero de Torres" officially died in 1939. He was listed as dying after escaping from a brutal Spanish Civil War prison outside of Barcelona. He's lived "off-the-books" for the past 18 years and now he has to become officially alive.
In confiding in Daniel, Fermin has to recount his time in the prison. Convicted of "war crimes" by trumped-up charges, Fermin endures a year or so in captivity with others who are there on equally vague charges. By 1939, Francisco Franco's Nationalist government had consolidated power in the war which began in 1936. The prisons were full of political dissenters as well as common criminals. Conditions were terrible and prisoners were often beaten and shot for no apparent reasons. Fermin was held with a famous writer, a murdering thief, and a doctor. The prison warden was trying to find the thief's booty for himself and also use the author to "ghost write" literature of which he, the warden, was going to claim authorship.
Ruiz Zafon goes back and forth between 1939 and 1957 with nary a dropped plot point. I thought it would help to have read the previous two books in the series, but the author says it's not necessary; the reader can read the three in any order. That's good to find out because for some reason I missed reading the second book in the series. Carlos Ruiz Zafon's writing is superb; both his plots and characters are right on the mark. The books have been noted as being "dark" and "gothic", but I think that's not right. Ruiz Zafon writing is SO evocative of Barcelona of the period that what appears to be "dark", really isn't. Maybe it helps to have visited Barcelona, because I'm familiar enough with the setting that I can see in my mind the places he refers to.
I can heartily recommend "The Prisoner of Heaven" for the readers of either or both the previous books in the series. I can also recommend it as a stand-alone novel. As for me, I'm going to order the second book right now!