Review: The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

I first read this about a decade ago and worked my way steadily through the series until university studying a literature degree disrupted the direction of my reading.  I was delighted therefore to revisit the world of Thursday Next when a nearby book group picked it for their June meeting.  Typically, it then took me about almost two months to get round to reviewing it.  I have always enjoyed this series for its originality and wit but a fair few of the literary references passed me by the first time around.  I always knew that this was a book for book-lovers but this time I realised just how cleverly crafted it really is.

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective in Spec-Ops 27 in an alternative 1985 Britain where passions run high concerning prose and poetry.  Riots break out between the rival factions of Miltonites and Shelley fanatics, the recent legalisation of surrealism has lead to civil unrest and the Marlowe contingent keep vandalising the Will-Speak machines.  In the midst of all this, evil genius Acheron Hades has stolen a machine which rips open the door into the fictional world and – horrors – he has kidnapped Jane Eyre.  Thursday finds herself in a race against time to rescue Jane and return her to her rightful place, stop Acheron, put an end to the Crimean War and win back the man she loves. Or let herself be won back. Whichever.

The chief joy in this series is very much in the detail.  Francis Baconites go door-to-door trying to convince people that he was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, dreaded in equal measure to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in our own world.  Thursday watches a performance of Richard III with audience participation making it more similar to the Rocky Horror Show.  One of the criminals holding Jane Eyre hostage demands as one of his conditions that a motorway service station be renamed after his mother, Leigh Delamere.  My own personal favourite were the bookworms developed by Thursday’s inventor uncle Mycroft, they eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes, meanings that sentences become harder to read depending on the stress level of the bookworms.

Weaving in the undead, time travel, the otherworldly as well as general thriller-style chase sequences and keeping up with the running literary in-jokes is quite some going and Fforde makes it all look effortless.  This series does have the potential to be a real summer beach read – interestingly, at the book group, there was general disagreement over whether the series had improved or declined over time.  I felt that this first instalment was the most complete and that a certain velocity was lost in the continuing adventures which were not as compact.  The more recent volumes (First Among Sequels onwards) felt more distinctly lacklustre.  Still, other people felt that The Eyre Affair lacked the breadth of the following books which set their action more squarely in the fictional world.  So I suppose it is just a matter of opinion.  One thing I would note is that this novel was the one with the greatest emphasis on the flat-out unexplained, with the true nature of Acheron Hades never made clear.  Further instalments tend to focus purely on the literary vs real world dimension and I think that this was a good creative decision.

I would also add that Thursday herself is a slightly blank protagonist – even her romance with Landen lacks emotional resonance.  Like Harry Potter, Bella Swann, Katniss Everdeen and oh so very many more before her, her function is to be a reader-proxy, to explain everything to us and to let us pretend to be her as the story unfurls.  It is always her name that springs to mind whenever I’ve got into a discussion over whether it is possible to write a compelling hero/heroine of the opposite sex (this has happened to me more than once).  Fforde is definitely better at ideas than characterisation.  Still, his rendering of Jane Eyre the Kidnap Victim is flawless and when the ideas are this good, one can forgive the minor flaws.

At the book group, comparisons were made to Terry Pratchett, Pryce’s Aberystwyth series (that one I came up with) but really what sets the Thursday Next adventures apart is that they are so different to anything else.  I do not even think that it is particularly necessary to have read Jane Eyre before starting in here – Thursday’s colleague never got round to that one either, so Thursday cheerfully fills him (and us) in.  Perhaps what I like to imagine most of all however is this world where people geek out about literature and poetry as much as I do – book fans with all the passion and emotion of the most committed One Direction-er (not sure if that is what they call themselves), where safeguarding great literature is made the subject of national importance and fictional characters can truly come to life.

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Published by Hachette UK on May 1st 2009
Genres: Fiction, Crime, General, Mystery & Detective, Action & Adventure
Pages: 300
ISBN: 9781844569199

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