Book review: Thursday Next #1: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (New English Library Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)
There is another 1985, somewhere in the could-have-been, where Thursday Next is a literary detective without equal, fear, or boyfriend. Thursday is on the trail of the villainous Acheron Hades who has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre herself has been plucked from the novel of the same name, and Thursday must find a way into the book to repair the damage.
She also has to find time to halt the Crimean conflict, persuade the man she loves to marry her, rescue her aunt from inside a Wordsworth poem and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Aided and abetted by a cast of characters that includes her time-travelling father, Jack Schitt of the all-powerful Goliath Corporation, a pet dodo named Pickwick and Edward Rochester himself, Thursday embarks on an adventure that will take your breath away.
If you think you know what to expect when you pick up The Eyre Affair, you’re wrong. If you think it sounds poncy or cliché if I say it defies genre, you’re also wrong, because how do you classify something that has cloned dodos for pets, time-travelling special agents, a whole section dedicated to literary crimes, a controversial war – namely the Crimean War, which has been going strong for well over 100 years – and the Mary-Sue of supervillains. Not to mention vampires, blimps, worms that spit out stray apostrophes and it’s all set in the mid-1980s … where fact and fiction sometimes blend together.
It’s mystery, drama, romance, scifi, fantasy, horror and comedy all rolled into one, and it’s frickin’ AMAZING. You enjoy the likes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams? You need to add Jasper Fforde to your reading list yesterday. The fact that I was only half-way through reading this book the first time when I ordered the rest of the series is a clue. So what if I only bought it because of the Jane Eyre connection? This book would have had my mind blown just as much if it was about Nancy Drew.
So what is it about?
Crimean veteran Thursday Next is working as a lowly LiteraTec, the literature crime section of the SpecOps (a huge organisation that runs the country, except it’s not a government organisation). Normally, she spends her days trying to keep pesky Baconians at bay or chasing down manuscript frauds and things like that, while lamenting the fact that she’s over thirty and still not married. When the nefarious Acheron Hades is afoot, she’s dragged into it simply because she’s the only one who has actually seen him – he used to be a university lecturer before he turned supervillain extraordinaire.
To cut a long story short, she ends up transferring to the LiteraTec office in her native Swindon, investigating a character missing from a Charles Dickens novel. It’s not long before it turns out Hades has bigger plans – to kidnap Jane Eyre.
In this world, Jane Eyre had a vastly different ending. She ends up accepting St John’s proposal and goes with him to India, and that’s how the novel ends. She never goes back to Thornfield, and Rochester is gone from the book as soon as she runs away to Morton. And that’s a pretty pants ending, everyone would agree. Thursday, for some reason, seems to have a special connection to it, because when she visited the Brontë parsonage in Haworth as a child, she managed to briefly step into the novel … causing a certain incident on Hay Lane …
The thing is, can she find – and defeat – the seemingly invincible Hades and his creepy sidekicks before something dreadful happens to Brontë’s ficional, poor and obscure, plain, little governess? And can she perhaps change the novel to have a more decent ending while she’s at it?
The Jane Eyre parts are handled well. I particularly enjoy Mr Rochester’s “Bah, pixies; both of you!” but it’s not just those parts that makes the book a must-read. It’s the world Fforde has come up with. It drags you in. How could it not? Pet dodos are just one thing. Thursday’s uncle Mycroft’s inventions are a stroke of genius – the bookworms and their grammatical output in particular. It’s a joke that works so well in writing but would get completely lost if it were filmed. (Such a shame, because I’d love to watch this.)
If I have anything to say against it, it would be that Acheron Hades is too badass. He has superpowers up the wazoo and he’s indestructible and can read minds and bend people’s wills and the list goes on and on and on. He becomes a caricature rather than a believable villain. He’s just so super evil that it goes over the top and all the way around and then back. But on the plus side, I quite enjoy Thursday and have confidence in her abilities. Just not when it comes to actually defeating the guy, because you’d probably need to be Superman to be in with a chance.
Full of literary in-jokes, of which I don’t even get half but still think they’re funny (such as “Millon de Floss”, a biographer often quoted at the start of chapters), so if you’re a book nerd, you can’t not help but to be amused. I read somewhere that Fforde simply wrote the sort of book he wanted to read himself, and I glad he did. The imagination and wit sizzling through every page is a delight, and I can’t wait to read the next one. In fact, I have already started it. And the sixth and latest novel in the series, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, was released earlier this year.
If you like a world that’s a lot more bizarre than our own, step into Thursday Next’s. She might even let you pet her dodo, and that isn’t even a euphemism.
5 out of 5 Prose Portals!