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The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

The_Labyrinth_of_Spirits_bookcoverFrom 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.
(view spoiler)

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

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The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

After finishing The Angel’s Game I was eager to start The Prisoner of Heaven as I was hoping that we could see how unreliable a narrator David was.220px-The_Prisoner_of_Heaven_-_bookcover.jpg

Tonally The Prisoner of Heaven is closer to the first book in this series, yet its short length and fast plot-line seemed more in a line with those of a short story or a novella. While The Prisoner of Heaven was a bit too long for my liking, and its story ‘dragged’ a little, I had the opposite problem The Prisoner of Heaven as I found myself wanting the story to slow down a little.
The story follows once more Daniel who is now married to Bea and has become a father himself. A figure from Fermín’s past will bring to light some old secrets and a not unsurprising connection between Fermín and David.
While I was interested in Fermín’s backstory I did find the Bea side-story to be a bit of distraction, one that did not really contribute to the overall story. When things seem to be getting into motion the story ends which did lessen my overall enjoyment.
Still, in spite of these reservations, Zafón—perhaps thanks to his translator—remains a good writer, even if he occasionally spends too much time on silly jokes.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

410JhN2DNoLLast summer I read and loved Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. It was a fun romp filled with melodrama which owed much to 19th century sensationalism (in that it implemented puzzles, Gothic and Romantic elements, clever twists towards an overarching quest of sorts). Reading that book was a fun experience. Although The Angel’s Game has similar themes to those explored in the first instalment of this series, these are embedded in a much more labyrinthine narrative that offers its readers few moments of respite.
In an interview Zafón described The Angel’s Game as a story of damnation and indeed it is. Unlike the conventional and likeable hero of The Shadow of the Wind Daniel, this second book is narrated and focuses on David Martin a figure that has much in common with the archetypical tragic hero of a faustian tale.
The storyline is intentionally confounding and we are soon forced to question David’s experiences. Both in his writing career and in his love ‘life’ there is a sense of impeding doom. The mysterious French editor, Andreas Corelli, and David’s new home offer the story plenty of intrigue yet at times this was counteracted by an unclear story. A lot of what happens or what David discovers was lost to me as I struggled to make head or tail of the bizarre events that he allegedly experienced.
Backdrop to David’s damnation is a city in turmoil and Zafón really does a compelling job in describing Barcelona during and post Spanish civil war. Paranoia and violence abound within his work.
As its predecessor The Angel’s Game is a deeply intertextual text that references directly and obliquely the writers and books it echoes (from sensationalist such as Dickens and Collins to 18th century Gothic works) incorporating and subverting established elements of these genres.
Perhaps I missed the humour and the characters of the first book as I was never able to really connect to David as he kept much of himself out of his own narrative. Still, reading this made me want to read the sequels, so that I may be able to understand what really went on in this book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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