Revisiting Gothic Barcelona with Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Over the years certain authors establish their preferred playgrounds, the settings enabling them to push their skills to the limit, whether due to first-hand experience and research or mere enchantment. Carlos Ruiz Zafon has certainly established Barcelona as his battlegrounds, penning amongst many other works The Cemetery of Forgotten Books taking place in the city’s rich and Gothic underworld.
Without too much surprise, he has decided to return to his city once again in Marina, his novel following the incredible adventures of a young fifteen-year-old boy about to experience more in a mere week than most people have in their entire lives. As the novel opens up we are presented with Oscar, a curious and inquisitive teenager who prefers to spend most of his days wandering around the city rather than studying. One of his eventual ventures leads on a chain of events which result in the acquaintance of an enigmatic woman, the titular Marina.
Connected by their love of mysteries, they end up going on an escapade to the local graveyard where a strange ritual takes place every last Sunday of the month as a mysterious woman leaves a rose on an unmarked grave.
The pair end up following the woman and make their way into a macabre greenhouse where they become embroiled in the lives and pursuits of a hermit tycoon, a mad scientist intent on defying death, and an actress everyone believes has passed away. Their histories are fascinating and defy all conventions while their intentions for the future are nothing if not sinister. As Oscar and Marina uncover more and more clues about these people, horrifying realizations begin to worm their way into the light.
Golden Thread of Mystery
Any author who writes a mystery novel must be able to weave one or more threads we want to unravel with great anticipation. They need to know how to properly chain events to maintain the reader’s curiosity at an absolute maximum, to keep them guessing and uncertain as to what they should expect next. I feel like Carlos Ruiz Zafon has mastered this art as he manages to create not one, but three threads of mystery, each of them feeling unique and original compared to the others.
He knows how to pique our curiosity about this strange trinity of people we come across, how to create an eerie air of uncertainty as to their natures and intentions. Time and time again our expectations are defied and the plot takes surprising turns which make us feel foolish for expecting the conventional. I’m quite glad to say the author cut no corners when weaving his tales and took good care in ensuring they all join together and relate in ways which aren’t always completely obvious.
As is always the case with Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Barcelona itself basically ends up being a character, the puppeteer which set in forth the motions of the story, the cauldron where all mysteries meet and fuse into homogeneity. Considering the prevailing atmosphere of the story I found Barcelona to be an excellently-chosen setting, its Gothic architecture and history of violence underlining the sinister tones of Marina.
An Exercise in Body Horror and Genre Fusion
I would classify Marina as a mystery novel first and foremost, but at the same time I cannot ignore the heavy presence of body horror throughout the pages. One of the stories we are treated to is that Mijail Kolvenik, a prosthetic designer who plied his craft after the First World War and became heavily renowned for it. Ultimately, this was a road which led him to a very unhealthy obsession with curing disease and deformity, paving the way for his eventual fall from grace.
I won’t go into too many details, but I feel I should mention there are some rather poignant scenes revolving around physical deformities and that type of horror. Personally I felt they complemented the mystery and gave it a real sense of tension, danger and even fright on a certain level. The gritty atmosphere might definitely be prevalent, especially during the horror segments, but that is not to say the novel is without any lighthearted redemption.
The protagonists are a bit younger than what we’re accustomed to with Zafon and there is a certain air of young bittersweet romance dispersed throughout the novel. There are a few funny and endearing moments which will no doubt bring back memories from days of yore. These small pauses of relief help pace the storytelling with some variety and prevent it from ever feeling stale or unoriginal.
The Final Verdict
Carlos Ruiz Zafon has once again created an entirely unique work of writing making the most of what Barcelona has to offer. It’s a compelling mystery populated with characters who will leave their mark in your memory, and adventure which fuses genres and achieves some powerful effects.
If you find appealing the streets of Gothic Spain and enjoy profound character-driven horror mysteries, then I highly recommend you bump this book up to the top of your TBR list.
Carl Ruiz Zafon
(September 25, 1964 – 19 June 19, 2020)
Carl Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish novelist whose first work, The Prince of Mist earned him the Edebe literary prize for young adult fiction. His subsequent novels, which included The Midnight Palace and Marina have eventually earned Zafon the the honor of being the most successful contemporary Spanish author, with his books having been published in over 45 countries and translated in 40 languages.