Publishers dream of novels that appeal to habitual readers and to those seeking one big book to last a holiday, and that is what Zafón’s quartet has delivered. His trick is to have linked multiple genres – fantasy, historical, romance, meta-fictional, police-procedural and political – through prose of atmospheric specificity. Different eras and strands are united through imagery of burial and death: an undersea cemetery, demolition revealing bodies in a hotel, incarceration in a fetid prison cell, mummified murder victims in a police museum. These collections of the dead echo the books and documents in the bibliographical and bureaucratic catacombs that haunt the story... Zafón is also a fine describer of city sights – vividly depicting both the touristic and obscure parts of Barcelona and Madrid – and his storytelling is impressively architectural... jumpy structure sometimes loses momentum, which becomes an even greater jeopardy in a book of this size, but the author always draws us back in with the revelation of another layer of character or a viscerally realised set piece.
In 2004, the English translation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind became a bestseller and introduced readers to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The Labyrinth of the Spirits (Weidenfeld £20) is the fourth of Zafon’s books to have this mysterious library at the heart of its plot. Daniel Sempere, the hero of the first novel, runs his own bookshop in 1950s Barcelona, but is still haunted by the unexplained death of his mother; Alicia Gris, orphaned in the Spanish Civil War, is a police agent seeking the truth about the disappearance of a high-ranking minister in Franco’s government. As the real events of Spain’s 20th-century history meld with Zafon’s gothic inventions, the fates of Daniel and Alicia intertwine. Across more than 800 pages, the pace of Zafon’s narrative unsurprisingly flags from time to time, but this is rich, ambitious storytelling.
A more ruthless editor, though, might have done well to have taken out some of the more repetitious phrasing, and the novel’s second half lags with some drawn-out scenes and dialogue... Nevertheless, the plotting is impeccable, interlocking, indeed labyrinthine, a machine designed to work itself precisely to conclusion. The book unfortunately rarely challenges or questions its setting (Franco’s Spain), and the human travesties and injustices of history (imprisonment, child trafficking) come close to being plot devices rather than points for complex debate. The story has a sense of the fantastical, however, and in this way exists outside of time, despite its historical setting. Zafón’s work is moving and engaging. This is a novel to lose oneself in, and it promotes the sort of reading experience we remember from childhood – of complete absorption into a fantasy world – but rarely attain in later life... The Labyrinth of Spirits has an unfortunately twee epilogue, and the novel’s conclusion feels over-extended, but for a tetralogy of such scope and with such complex plotting, there is a lot to wrap up.