As a child, Daniel Sempere discovered among the passageways of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books an extraordinary novel that would change the course of his life. Now a young man in the Barcelona of the late 1950s, Daniel runs the Sempere & Sons bookshop and enjoys a seemingly fulfilling life with his loving wife and son. Yet the mystery surrounding the death of his mother continues to plague his soul despite the moving efforts of his wife Bea and his faithful friend Fermín to save him.
Just when Daniel believes he is close to solving this enigma, a conspiracy more sinister than he could have imagined spreads its tentacles from the hellish regime. That is when Alicia Gris appears, a soul born out of the nightmare of the war. She is the one who will lead Daniel to the edge of the abyss and reveal the secret history of his family, although at a terrifying price.
The long-awaited novel for those immersed in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This is number 4 in the series and brings closure to the epic tale that began with The Shadow of the Wind in 2001. Each book following ‘Shadow’ takes the reader on a journey that explores of one of the themes/characters it introduced, as well as keeping Daniel and his family in the frame. For those of you yet to discover the literary universe of the Cemetery of Books, the author states the series can be read in any order, or separately, but be aware that this one does draw all the themes together.
As with previous books in the series, the tale involves numerous stories and with this one a book, within the book so that labyrinthine is definitely the word to describe it. The book is literally an intricate and complicated arrangement of irregular paths that draw you into the heart of the action. At this point I’d like to give a shout out to the translator Lucia Graves, who does an excellent job on keeping the narrative flowing, without losing the beauty and richness of Zafon’s prose. At 800 plus pages that is no mean feat.
This book finds us back on Barcelona and opens with Daniel and Fermin (who I love as a character), but the complex tale, introducing the story at the heart of the book, starts a few chapters in. Going back to 1938, we are re-acquainted with Fermin during his dramatic return to Barcelona as a stowaway. On a mercy errand to deliver a letter to his friend’s lover and her 9 year old daughter Alicia, he is caught up in one of a series of Nationalist airstrikes on the city. Their home is hit and while trying to rescue Alicia, they become separated. So starts a story that we will follow until its final resolution in 1992. The strikes that devastated Barcelona, were not ordered by General Franco, but rather his ally Mussolini, in support of the Fascist regime in Spain. This act of brutality, is one of many that peppers the book as we see exemplified, time and time again, the epithet that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Alicia survived the bombing and was eventually taken in under the wing of Leandro, her Svengali. For almost 20 years she has worked for him and his political henchmen in Madrid, but now she wants out. He has promised one last case and she can go. That last case is to search for missing Culture Minister, Mauricio Valls. It is a case, which takes Alicia into an underworld that reveals the depths of mans inhumanity to man. It is dark, despairing, violent and murderous. It is a place made more horrific, by the thought that the torture and murder it reveals, was more than likely to have been the reality for some during the Franco regime. Furthermore, the story that unfolds of stolen children is undoubtedly true. It reveals a past, that even today, Spain is still struggling to come to terms with.
It is while searching for Valls, that Alicia becomes involved with the Sempere family, and what she uncovers directly relates to them. Daniel has always sought the answer as to how his mother died, what Alicia uncovers will finally give Daniel that answer and many more. For those who have read the previous works, we are re-acquainted with David Martin and introduced to another Victor Mataix. As ever we have fictions within fiction, and a literary mystery. I don’t want to say more about the plot or the characters, but to leave you to discover them for yourself and make your own mind up. Needless to say I wouldn’t be saying that of I didn’t think them worthy of your time, especially Alicia, troubled, haunted, damaged and resilient Alicia.
This is a book which cannot fail to move, whether that be to anger, despair or joy. Zafon has a way of playing with emotions and juxtaposing the good with the bad. He doesn’t shy away from presenting the harsh realities, or observing fictional niceties by protecting the good guys. In this book, as with the others, all human life is here. It’s an expose of the horrors of war and yet also a love story to the resilience of the human spirit. Having fallen in love with Barcelona, Daniel, Fermin and the Cemetery of Books, way back in 2001, reading this book is like saying goodbye to an old friend, knowing that the end has finally come. I don’t know what, if anything, Zafon has planned for the future, but if and when it happens, I’ll be in the queue along with many others waiting to discover.