Even before his birth, Arnau Estanyol’s life is one marked by hardship and heartache. As an infant, his mother lost to him, his father flees the tyranny of the ruthless noble who owns the land his family has farmed for generations to Barcelona with the hope that Arnau will grow up as a free man. While eventually Arnau and his father earn the title of being “free”, in truth they are anything but, subject to the tempers and powers of the nobles in the city.
When Arnau finds himself orphaned at the age of fourteen, he is willing to do whatever is necessary to support himself and his adopted brother, Joan. Fate brings him into the guild of the bastaixos, powerful laborers on whom the city depends to unload and load their ships, who in their free time carry heavy stones for the construction of the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral. In carrying the stones for the church and the Virgin Mary, Arnau knows he is assisting a cause greater than himself, as well as aiding Joan and his dream of becoming a man of the cloth. While Arnau and Joan go down separate paths, the story remains centered on Arnau and his life of love, pain, passion and revenge. When the two reunite, Joan is no longer the young boy Arnau remembers, and when the deadly Inquisition focuses its attention on Arnau, he finds himself betrayed by the one person he thought he could always trust.
Comparisons between Cathedral of the Sea and Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth are bound to be made with the similar theme of the construction of a grand cathedral. While similar, each book is wholly unique in its own right. The actual building of the cathedral is more of a focus in Follett’s work, and while wonderful details of construction are given in Falcones’s book, the story is more on the spiritual meaning of the building to Arnau, as later in life he no longer works on the cathedral. That said, it’s almost a guarantee that anyone who enjoyed Pillars of the Earth is sure to find great pleasure in reading Cathedral of the Sea.
War, threat of starvation, plague and the Inquisition are all keys plot points in the novel. Whatever tragedy can befall Arnau does, yet he continues to struggle on all while looking to The Virgin, the only mother he believes he has, for answers and guidance. His faith is often tested, and while he questions why certain things have happened to him or others, he never wavers in his faith to the Virgin Mary.
The details of the book are astounding. From the life of peasants and nobility, to warfare, to politics and the Church, the painstaking research that went into creating Cathedral of the Sea is obvious. The brutality of the times in the treatment of the poor, the bigotry against those of Jewish faith, the injustice of the Inquisition - all are shown in vivid and heart-wrenching detail. At times it can be a bit over-descriptive, reading almost like a history text, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At over 600 pages, Cathedral of the Sea is a weighty book, but each of those pages is worthwhile.
Poignant and powerful, there’s a reason why Cathedral of the Sea was a bestseller in the author’s native Spain and now is one internationally. Fans of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, lovers of fine historical novels, or those who enjoy a good read in any genre: Cathedral of the Sea isn’t to be missed.