Monday, 28 October 2013

Book review: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon Marina (1999, translated 2013) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

First line: Marina once told me that we only remember what never really happened.

Marina is the last of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's existing books to be translated into English, following the first three books of the Barcelona quartet (for adult readers), and the Niebla trilogy (for teenagers). Published in Spanish in 1999 - two years before the worldwide bestseller The Shadow of the Wind - it is the final young adult novel written by the author, and its transitional nature is evident in the style. It reads as a lot more 'grown-up' than the Niebla books, but the protagonist is a teenage boy and in many ways this feels like a young adult fantasy story, albeit one written with the deliberate intent to appeal to a wider audience.

Set primarily in between 1979 and 1980 - although it feels as though it could be a lot earlier - Marina is written from the point of view of Oscar Drai, a fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil in Barcelona. Lonely and bored, Oscar wanders into the garden of what he assumes to be an abandoned house and meets the beautiful, ethereal Marina, a girl of his age who is home-schooled, and her artist father Germán. Oscar is quickly drawn into a friendship with this eccentric, fascinating family (as well as having a burgeoning crush on Marina), but the real intrigue begins when Marina takes him to a nearby graveyard, where the pair watch a veiled woman place a single rose on an unmarked grave. Pursuing the mystery of this act leads the two friends into an unimaginably complex and macabre adventure in Barcelona's underworld.

This is a classic Ruiz Zafón book in that it has so much going for it, so much to be fascinated by, yet never quite makes good on that promise, and - however much you might want it to be - just isn't as good as it should be with all the brilliant ingredients that have been thrown into it. More than any of his others, this particular book seems to highlight very clearly what is both good and bad about the author's writing.

The good:
- Such rich, descriptive prose: often verging on over-the-top, flowery language, but incredibly enjoyable to lose yourself in, and lacking the awkwardness of much translated fiction.
- A constant gothic undercurrent of madness, darkness and twisted imagination.
- Atmospheric and incredibly evocative portrayal of Barcelona.
- A magical, timeless quality which makes the story feel like it could be taking place in any time period.

The bad:
- Poorly drawn, underdeveloped female characters who are all unrealistically flawless, fragile and virginal.
- Confused action scenes that become incomprehensible in places.
- The overall plot becomes so complicated and bogged down in different subplots and characters' stories that it's easy to lose track of what is actually supposed to be happening.

I did enjoy Marina - but, as usual, not as much as I wished I could. With its rich, ominous mixture of characters, places, dreadful misdeeds and weird stuff, it makes for a largely compelling read that doesn't feel compelling as a whole - I felt deflated when I reached the end, and cared little about any of the characters. It feels a bit churlish to complain about characters being two-dimensional in a novel that would be more suited to a reader half my age, but so much attention seems to have been paid to the descriptive details of the settings that the people it's all supposed to revolve around have been neglected. It's telling that the book is named for Marina yet, having read it, I have nothing whatsoever to say about that character. I wasn't sure about the fantasy element, either (again, this would probably be far more enjoyable and frightening to the hypothetical younger reader), and one thing that happened near the end was so ridiculously clichéd and terrible that I nearly lost my patience completely.

I was drawn to Marina by the same things that have made me read almost all of Ruiz Zafón's books, and I was disappointed by the exact same things that have disappointed me in the author's other work - a feeling that the whole thing is more about style than substance, and terrible female characters. It's bound to be a hit with die-hard fans of the author since it offers so many similarities with the rest of his books: admittedly, it's interesting to see many of the themes of his adult fiction emerging here, and it would probably make a good starting point for those unfamiliar with The Shadow of the Wind et al. I'm not wholly convinced that Marina lives up to the tagline on the cover which declares it to be 'a gothic tale for all ages', but it's a fun read, if a frustratingly imperfect one.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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