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Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Perhaps it's not the style these days, but when I read a book I want to feel the cracks in the sidewalk underneath a character's feet as he walks down the street, smell the odours that waft out from the bakery she or he passes by on their morning walk, and feel the same cold wind they do bite my cheeks. Sure, it's all very well and good to let us know what things and people look like, but I want to experience the world and be immersed in it when I read. If I wanted to just look at something as a passive observer I'd watch television instead of reading a book.

Well, if you share any of that sentiment than you'll probably take as much pleasure in reading the latest offering from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game, that was just published by Random House Canada. Set in Barcelona, the majority of the action takes place in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's. The book opens in 1917 with our narrator, David Martin, recalling how it was that year, when he was seventeen, he was first paid for his writing. However, instead of this being a pleasant memory, he says from the moment a writer first sells a piece he is doomed and his soul has a price. When soul and price are mentioned in the first paragraph of a book, it's a good bet the story is going to have something to do with the forces of darkness and a descent into one type of Hell or another is in the cards.

However before we take that plunge Zafon makes sure we know why it could happen to David. Not only was he abysmally poor as a child, but he was raised by his alcoholic, ex-soldier, father. However, it's the fact that Zafon manages to capture the real horror of what poverty does to a child - takes away his or her expectations of anything good happening to them, that makes this important for the story. In fact it's a copy of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations that makes David realize that the idea of a poor person having expectations of any sort is ridiculous. For he's lucky that his father even allows him to attend school and learn to read and write. However, after beating David for wasting money by using electricity in order to read the Dickens novel, his father begins to have a change of heart and starts to allow David to buy books. But as David begins to have expectations of a relationship with him, his father is gunned down in front of him.
The Angel's Game cover.jpg
However, as a result of his father's death he meets the man who is to become his patron and mentor, Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal not only gets him a job at the newspaper he writes for, he's also responsible for that first paid writing assignment. When that job comes to an end it's Pedro who finds a publisher who employs David to write an ongoing series of crime fiction adventures. With an income assured, he's able to consider finding a place to live that's not a slum. Ever since he was a child David had been attracted to an old abandoned mansion whose prominent feature was a tower. As soon as he has the money to be able to afford it, he takes out a lease on the building and moves in.

Although he considers he long ago sold his artistic soul by agreeing to write pulp fiction, the selling of his own soul comes about in a slightly different manner. Almost immediately after his first story is published in the newspaper, David had started to receive mysterious letters congratulating him on his success. These turn out to be from a man who claims to be a book publisher who has a most unusual request; he wants to commission David to write him a religion. At first he dismisses the idea as crazy, but the publisher is persistent, and finally David agrees to the contract. Anyway, 100,000 francs is an awfully large amount of money for a years work.

Needless to say agreeing to the job is the beginning of his descent into his personal hell. It turns out that the previous occupant of where he lives died under very mysterious circumstances. When David begins to investigate he discovers that before he died the man had been working on a book for a mysterious publisher who had promised him 100,000 francs. David is drawn into a conspiracy that reaches into the highest ranks of society. The deeper he digs, the deeper he gets into trouble for as corpses start to pile up around him the police begin to blame him. However, he can't shake the feeling that his mysterious publisher is somehow at the root of all this and he's determined to get to the bottom of it all no matter what happens.
Carlo Ruiz Zafon.jpg
With The Angel's Game Zafon has created a multilayered treat for readers that incorporates all the best elements of gothic horror and murder mysteries while at the same time creating characters who are incredibly realistic. We watch how disappointment after disappointment pushes David into the arms of his tempter. For it's only when the last of his personal dreams and expectations are squashed that he surrenders. As David descends into darkness so does the book. For while the beginning of the book does contain some sadness, the death of his father, there are moments of genuine humour and an overall lightness of spirit that reflects David's initial optimism. As the story progresses the city itself begins to descend into darkness and gloom until the final climax is played out under a black sky streaked "with veins of red light".

Zafon has gone to great pains with this book to bring every scene to life in such a manner that as a reader you feel the cobblestones beneath your feet as David walks through the older parts of Barcelona. The city, and all the other environments in this book are as much characters, and are as well drawn, as the people who populate them. Aside from there not being a dull moment to be found throughout the length of The Angel's Game, its a marvellous depiction of one man's descent into darkness. It's all too easy to look at the character of David Martin and see parts of yourself reflected back, as you have to wonder how you would react if all of the expectations you had for your life were to slowly erode in front of your eyes. It's not often you'll find a book that's not only a page turner but also as thought provoking as this one. A rare combination that deserves to be savoured and read over and over again.

You can purchase a copy of The Angel's Game either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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