In a city readers of the previous three novels will know well, we are back in Barcelona – only this time, it’s the late 1950s. The ripple effects of the civil war are unforgotten but unspoken, while many still reel from the horrors committed in the name of Francoism. In the midst of this, Don Mauricio Valls, Franco’s culture minister, vanishes, and in comes Alicia Gris, the formidable female heroine we’ve been waiting for. Alicia is relentlessly driven, smart, and by all accounts, mesmerisingly beautiful. She also takes no prisoners.
Alicia and the policeman instructed to work with her, Juan Manuel Vargas, begin to piece together the mystery surrounding Valls’ disappearance. It’s a journey that takes them to the bowels of decaying Barcelona mansions, luxury suites at the Gran Hotel Palace, and, of course, the winding and interminable passageways of the cemetery of forgotten books.
Because of course, books are at the heart of this story, just as in the stories that preceded this one. The threads of literary mystery run deep, pulling us back to the questions about fact and fabrication, truth and lies, and the power of books to commemorate, to heal, to live long after their authors are gone. And with the reappearance of the cemetery of forgotten books, we find ourselves with the Sempere family once more. For the horrors of the Franco regime and terrors of the war aren’t an abstract piece of history – this family, as with so many others, have suffered greatly.
“There, in the heart of old Barcelona, where neither machines nor their disciples could penetrate, Alicia wanted to believe that time flowed in circles and that if she didn’t venture beyond those narrow streets through which the sun only dared to tiptoe, perhaps she would never grow old and would be able to return to a hidden time, rediscover the path she should never have left.”
Alicia and Vargas dive deeper into the underbelly of a past that many people want forgotten, and they begin to learn more about how and why Valls disappeared, and what he was responsible for as governor of the notorious Montjuïc prison. They have an unwavering commitment to the truth, to bringing justice upon those responsible for unspeakable suffering. But it will come at a cost.
“Bea watched Fermín leave in a blue twilight that threatened sleet. She stood there, looking out as people filed along Calle Santa Ana, hidden under scarves and coats. Something told her that winter, the real winter, had just collapsed on them without warning. And this time it would not go unnoticed.”
Both intricate and expansive, this final instalment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is a testament to Zafón’s masterful skill, his ability to hold you in rapt attention for over 700 pages and nine decades as we explore the final mysteries of the Sempere family. The characters Zafón has created are a pure joy to read, the incomparable Fermin Romero de Torres being one of the most memorable and funniest characters in all of modern literature, and the city of Barcelona itself, as many have noticed, as much a life form in these novels as any person.
It isn’t flawless – it took me a little while to warm up to the novel, and I found that picking it up and putting it back down was not going to work for me – I had to truly invest and devour hundreds of pages at a time to keep up with all the narrative threads. The ending was, I felt, a little drawn out, but I could understand that Zafón would not want to put this series to rest without giving the characters a fitting, holistic farewell. I adored visiting Zafón’s universe for a final time, and most of all what I loved is what is at the heart of this novel – the unwavering reverence for the enduring power – and immortality – of books.
“Tell our stories to the world, and never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”