The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
I honestly couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have recommended Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series to me. However, it wasn’t until I was browsing a charity bookshop and stumbled across The Eyre Affair that I actually got round to making a start on the series. I don’t know exactly what I was imagining when I started reading, but it was definitely a little different to my expectations (not in a bad way); I think the best description I could give for this novel would be ‘bonkers, but fun’.
The Eyre Affair introduces us to the world of Thursday Next, a literary detective working in a parallel universe in which the Crimean War has lasted 100 years, time travel exists, and people regularly change their names to those of their favourite authors. The narrative follows Thursday as she tracks Hades, a criminal holding original manuscripts and fictional characters to ransom. In the course of tracking Hades, she encounters a machine that allows those from the real world to step into the textual world, interacting with fictional characters and long-dead writers. In the midst of all this chaos, Thursday is also trying to decide whether or not to get back together with her ex-fiancé.
As is probably evident from the above summary, which still excludes some crucial parts of the narrative, this is a novel with a lot going on. This often served Fforde’s tone well: his Douglas Adams-esque comedy thrives in throwing the reader into the chaos of such a different world. I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from different biographies and diaries of the characters at the opening of each chapter; Fforde is able to build his world humourously through these quotes which do not, at first, seem to be part of the overall narrative. They reveal a busy, confusing world, in which multiple people have the same name depending on their favourite writer and it is possible to accidentally end up in a different time. I definitely laughed out loud a few times, much to the confusion and probably irritation of my family.
However, I did feel that there was a little too much set-up in The Eyre Affair, an issue I would imagine the other novels in the series would not have. Fforde is doing such a thorough job in building his world and the backstories of his characters that it seems to take a long time for the real action of the narrative to get started. I was particularly surprised that Jane Eyre didn’t feature properly until the last third of the narrative, given that it is feature in the title; for the majority of the novel, the case revolves around Martin Chuzzlewit. The slow build-up doesn’t take away from the overall impression of the novel too much since Fforde’s world is so imaginative that it is fascinating anyway, but I would hope that this is less of a problem in subsequent books in the series.
Despite my personal disagreement with Fforde’s interpretation of Rochester, this was a novel and a world that I enjoyed stepping into for a time. Fforde’s writing reminded me very much of Douglas Adams with the humour within its world-building; any fans of Adams will probably enjoy Fforde too. I also feel that this is a series that will appeal particularly to those who love classic literature: I particularly liked the fact that literature so dominates this parallel universe that they need Literary Detectives. I can definitely see why it was recommended to me, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light, comedic, and imaginative read.