The Prince of Mist

Review: “The Prince of Mist” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1993]; translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves [2010]

The Prince of Mist is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s debut novel and the first of his back catalogue to be translated into English. Although Zafon’s earlier novels, before The Shadow of the Wind, are group as Young Adult, I don’t think there should be a problem appealing to the rest of us.

Set in Spain, 1943 in the midst of WWII, thirteen year old Max Carver’s father decides to uproot his family and move away from the city and to a sleepy seaside town. Max’s father, Maximilian, an eccentric watchmaker, had purchased an abandoned house with a sad history. It’s previous owners were an unhappy couple who had trouble conceiving throughout their marriage. Eventually, they managed to fall pregnant and produced a son, Jacob. When the boy is eight, he disappears one morning and is found drowned in the sea.

From the moment Max enters their new home, he gets an uncomfortable feeling. The clocks in the house are perpetually slower than their watches even after careful examination of the mechanics by Maximilian and constant turning. A stray cat that Max’s younger sister picked up at the train station and adopted continually stalks and watches them. Max also discovers an overgrown garden at the back of the house with statues arranged in a strange formation:

The figures seemed to be arranged in concentric circles and Max realised that they were all facing west. They appeared to form part of something resembling a circus troupe. As he walked among the statues, Max recognised the figure of a lion tamer, a turbaned fakir with a hooked nose, a female contortionist, a strongman and a whole gallery of other ghostly characters. In the middle of the garden, resting on a pedestal, stood the imposing figure of a clown. – p. 27

The mystery of the statues, when Max finally realises that they are arranged to form a six-point star, deepens when his father finds an box of old film in the garage, revealing to be amateur footage of the house and the mysterious garden – except that in the film, the statues were in a different position and pose. Forming a strong friendship with a local boy, Roland, who takes him diving to explore an old ship wreck, the Orpheus, which had sunk twenty-five years ago¬† while carrying dubious passengers, Max see the six-pointed star again on the ship’s flag. More about the mysterious wreck and origins of the statue, particularly the ringleader Clown is revealed when Roland takes Max and his sister to see his grandfather who has been the lighthouse keeper for the last twenty-five years.

As a debut novel, Prince of Mist is a fantastic read. It’s so atmospheric and Gothic, elements Zafon later fully employs in his subsequent bestsellers. While this is book is marketed as YA, this is truly one scary and frightening read – or perhaps I’m either a complete wuss when it comes to scary books and movies or the fact that I find clowns terrifying. One downside of the book was the beginning. I’m not sure if it was the translation or the writing but some words were repeated over and over again and it just pulled the reader out from getting into the moment. Other than that, once you’ve broken in, it’s one thrilling read.