Monday, 4 November 2013

Book Review | Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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In May 1980, 15-year-old Oscar Drai suddenly vanishes from his boarding school in the old quarter of Barcelona. For seven days and nights no one knows his whereabouts...

His story begins in the heart of old Barcelona, when he meets Marina and her father German Blau, a portrait painter. Marina takes Oscar to a cemetery to watch a macabre ritual that occurs on the fourth Sunday of each month. At 10 a.m. precisely a coach pulled by black horses appears. From it descends a woman dressed in black, her face shrouded, wearing gloves, holding a single rose. She walks over to a gravestone that bears no name, only the mysterious emblem of a black butterfly with open wings.

When Oscar and Marina decide to follow her they begin a journey that will take them to the heights of a forgotten, post-war Barcelona, a world of aristocrats and actresses, inventors and tycoons; and a dark secret that lies waiting in the mysterious labyrinth beneath the city streets.


Upon its original publication, The Shadow of the Wind was something of a sensation in Spain, and again times ten — thanks in no small part to Lucia Graves' great translation — when it was let loose in the West damn near a decade ago.

Sadly, the going's been ever so slow as regards new novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafón since. There was The Angel's Game in 2009 — a bit of a disappointment, if I'm honest — and in 2012, The Prisoner of Heaven: a worthy sequel to The Shadow of the Wind, if not necessarily an equal. Be that as it may, I can hardly wait to read the concluding volume of the Cemetery cycle... but I'm going to have to, aren't I?

In the meantime, there's been plenty to keep Zafón's army of fans happy, because between these releases, Lucia Graves has been working her way through the novels the master of post-modern melodrama made his name with in the nineties: a series of four young adult fantasies beginning with The Prince of Mist — a pleasant if forgettable blip of a book — and concluding, this year, with Marina.

Set in the late 1970s in beautiful, byzantine Barcelona — an enchanted city wherein "time and memory, history and fiction merged [...] like watercolours in the rain" (p.5) — Marina tells the tale of Oscar Drai's missing days. "Then a fifteen-year-old boy languishing in a boarding school named after some half-forgotten saint," (p.5) at the outset Oscar meets a secretive girl called Marina and her ailing father, Germán. They become fast friends... though, you know, only on the down low:
Without knowing quite why, I kept the friendship hidden. I hadn't told anyone about them, not even my friend JF. In just a few weeks Germán and Marina had become my secret life and in all honesty the only life I wished to live. I remember the time when Germán went to bed early, excusing himself as usual with the impeccably manners of an old-fashioned gentleman. I was left alone with Marina in the room with the portraits. She smiled enigmatically. (pp.70-71)
As it happens, she has a habit of doing that; that and many other mysterious things. She has a secret, you see — several, strictly speaking — and one day she clues Oscar in on the gothic plot Zafón's novel revolves around. It begins at the Sarria cemetery, one of Barcelona's best-hidden spots:
If you look for it on the map, you won't find it. If you ask locals or taxi drivers how to get there, they probably won't know, although they'll have heard all about it. And if, by chance, you try to look for it on your own, you're more likely than not to get lost. The lucky few who know the secret of its whereabouts suspect that this old graveyard is in fact an island lost in the ocean of the past, which appears and disappears at random. 
This was the setting to which Marina let me that Sunday in September, to reveal a mystery that intrigued me almost as much as she did. (p.29)
To be sure, I was taken in too, for from their vantage point, Oscar and Marina watch a hooded woman pray before a grave unmarked excepting a simple symbol: a black butterfly with open wings. Perplexed, our intrepid adventurers stick their noses in still further, and resolve to follow the hooded woman home. When she disappears into an overgrown greenhouse, they head in unhesitating — and that's where the innocent fun finishes, because deep in the greenhouse, Oscar and Marina find an entrance to a subterranean inner sanctum of sorts, where they discover an obscenely creepy collection of dolls along with a macabre photo album depicting "innocent souls imprisoned within bodies that were horribly deformed." (p.41)

Intriguing, indeed. Alas, the mystery doesn't last. Marina may be the finest of Zafón's four young adult fantasies —  it is certainly the most reminiscent of the territory the author went on to explore in the Cemetery cycle — but it, too, has significant issues. Foremost among them, by far, is this; the end result of which is, I'm sorry to say, some faux-Phantom of the Opera nonsense. To make matters worse, Marina's riddles are revealed piecemeal by way of a series of increasingly convoluted monologues, for instance the following:
"All the former members of the Velo-Granell executive board met their deaths, theoretically of natural causes. Heart attack was the doctor's diagnosis in most of the cases. One of them drown in his own swimming pool. The body was still holding a gun when they fished him out. For the rest the circumstances were similar. They'd been alone in their beds; it was always at midnight; and they were all found in process of dragging themselves across the floor... trying to flee from a death that left no trace. All except Benjamín Sentís." (p.158-159)
Markedly more satisfying than the central mystery of Marina are the relationships between Oscar and Marina, Marina and her father, even Marina's father and our able narrator. A piquant combination of sweetness and silliness and sadness elevates their early interactions above and beyond the norm. Unfortunately, these too take a backseat when the twisted riddle begins to unravel, though the very last chapters represent something of a saving grace.

Marina's primary problem is far from fundamental, but it does undoubtedly take the edge off a novel I was looking forward to recommending unreservedly as far as two thirds through. As is, Marina might be slightly more satisfying than Carlos Ruiz Zafon's other young adult fantasies — a largely lacklustre bunch — but in the final summation it falls short of the promise of its premise and an absolutely fantastic first act.


by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

UK Publication: September 2013, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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