From the blatant sexism pouring through each page to its bloated plot, The Labyrinth of the Spirits offers an inadequate conclusion to what I considered to be an entertaining series. If anything this disastrous farewell has made me reevaluate the whole Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I vaguely remember finding the female representation in these books to be somewhat questionable. The women are passive, mere love interests. So, initially I was pretty excited to read The Labyrinth of the Spirits given that unlike its predecessors it stars a female protagonist…who sadly turns out to be a walking and talking clichè.
Like its title suggests, and similarly to the previous books, The Labyrinth of the Spirits presents its readers with a labyrinthine storyline. Carlos Ruiz Zafón once again showcases his penchant for melodrama, as well as a fondness for sprinkling Gothic and Romantic elements onto his narrative. There are also many aspects of The Labyrinth of the Spirits suggest that Zafón was also influenced by nineteenth-century Sensation and Detective fiction.
To begin with I appreciated Zafón’s humour, especially since it took the edge off from some of the somber scenes, but by the end I was so irritated by his one-dimensional characters that I was no longer amused by it. That’s when I realised that many of the jokes were made by men at women’s expense. After that things just went downhill. While I may have been intrigued by the baroque structure of his story, amused by some of the more clever pieces of dialogue, and even impressed by certain descriptions, ultimately I just could not stomach the rampant sexism in his novel.
One could try to lazily justify Zafón’s sexism by arguing that it is ‘historically authentic’….but I’m not sure it is. This novel is hardly realistic or historically accurate. And while the story takes place in 1959, Spain, Zafón uses Victorian ideals of gender in which women fall into either of these categories: they are objects of men’s sexual desire or pure and fragile virgins prone to mysterious maladies. Regardless of the category they fall into—‘whore’ or ‘angel’—their bodies will be objectified.
Alicia, one of the central figures in The Labyrinth of the Spirits is considered ‘different’ because she excels at her job as an investigator for Spain’s secret police. She is brusque and manipulative. She is also emotionally and physically scarred…two things that keep her from being wholly independent. Alicia, unlike her male counterparts, mostly gets things done by using the men around her…and it seems that no man can resist her. She is a ‘damaged’ ‘vixen’ who has no qualms about turning men’s attraction towards her to her own advantage. Yet, she often insists on playing solo, landing herself in dangerous or stupid situations. Time and again a man has to help her when her old injury plays up. She has no agency of her own and relies on male characters to help her (all the while claiming that she is a solitary creature). Men are attracted to her not because she is forthright or intelligent but because they are turned on by her ‘promiscuous’ ways. Not only does she openly flirt with them (oh my!) but she’s also a ‘lush’. Male characters with far worse habits are painted in far less judgemental light. All the male characters (all of whom are able-bodied) are incredibly patronising towards her and her body. Rather than calling them out, the narrative makes their behaviour seem a sign of their ‘fatherly’ love for her (most of these father figures also would like to sleep with her).
Female characters hate Alicia because they see her as a threat. They are jealous because she’s beautiful and sexy, and they worry that she will take their men.
Ultimately, like in the previous books, Alicia becomes a mere object of desire, her whole character reduced to the effect she has on the men around her. While she is presented as ‘subversive’, she is made emotionally and physically ‘unstable’, so that in actuality she can only operate when aided by a man.
The other female characters are just as one-dimensional. They either have ‘loose’ morals, and shake their hips to entice men, or are vulnerable because they are too pure for this world. All of the male characters are horny and find any excuse to talk about women’s breasts and thighs. Fermin, a character I used to find ‘funny’, is constantly talking about his sexual desire towards women, and it is usually made into some big joke. More problematic still is Fermin and another male character’s fixation with ‘mulatto girls’ (when talking about cigars one of them says: “They bring them to me straight from Cuba. Sheer class, the sort the mulatto girls roll between their thighs ”). These are the only instances when ‘mulatto’ girls are mentioned…
The way Zafón portrays his female characters is not ‘historically accurate’, it is just sexist. Why do his male characters, regardless of whether they fall into the good or bad category, are shown more empathy than his female ones? Alicia is constantly objectified and undermined by the narrative, even in those passages that are from her perspective. Why even bother with this pretence at being ‘subversive’ when in reality you are presenting your readers with the classic ‘damaged woman’?
When Zafón’s female characters are able to escape dangerous situations on their own they always suffer in a way male characters do not (view spoiler). Zafón’s women exist merely to be desired….and I’m supposed to believe that in the 1950s women did not have any agency at all? That their personalities were near non-existent? Even a novel dating from the Victorian era would present us with a more complex portrayal of female identity…
I’ve kept the worst thing about this book for last. Something happens towards the end of this novel that made me hate a character I previously liked.
A few lines later Bea has forgiven him and tells Daniel that: “I’d like to have another child. A girl. Would you like that?”
This rape is made to seem as a mere emotional outburst on Daniel’s part. There are no repercussions or guilt, and everything goes back to normal…but after this scene I found it impossible to view Daniel as the hero the narrative was making him to be (hide spoiler)].
The story goes on too long, and it ends up being a rather convoluted and overdramatic mess. There are few predictable twists and the ending ruined the whole series: (view spoiler).
While I can recognise that Zafón is both a terrific wordsmith and a marvellous storyteller, I can’t turn a blind eye to how sexist his gargantuan novel is.
My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars