The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
My God, I cannot remember the last book which I read which was as fun as this one. Certain authors write with such infectious energy, their love of language and literature shining through, that it can be difficult to not feel it too. Jasper Fforde’s debut novel , The Eyre Affair, is just such a work, an energetic and silly postmodern fantasy which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Eyre Affair takes place in a bizarre parallel 1985, in which the Crimean War has been raging for over a century, Wales has seceded from the UK and the world is curiously obsessed with literature. There are riots over surrealism, terrorist attacks over the Shakespearian authorship questions and massive conventions for John Milton. The protagonist of The Eyre Affair is Thursday Next, a member of LiteraTec, a force tasked with investigating literature related crime. Thursday ‘s uncle, the eccentric genius Mycroft, has invented a device which breaks the boundary of reality and fiction, allowing travel between the written page and the real world by both ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ characters. The delightfully malevolent Acheron Hades has stolen the original manuscript of Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit and holds the protagonist hostage, and it is up to Thursday to prevent this potential crime against literature.
Fforde’s parallel England is a hilarious and intriguing setting, and one which I look forward to continuing to explore in the many sequels that he has written to The Eyre Affair. Fforde loves to drop amusing and fun details scattered throughout the text. When creating a setting as strange as this, it’s key that the characters inside the story act as if everything is normal, and it’s here that Fforde really excels. This is a world which, despite everything, just works. It may be a hodgepodge of different ideas welded together, but for a comic novel that’s sometimes the best thing. Was Douglas Adam’s galaxy in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it’s sequels coherent as a setting? No, of course not, but that took nothing away from the novel as a whole. The same is true here.
The actual plot is a lot of fun, if somewhat predictable in its outcome. It’s odd to say that a novel as bizarre as this one can be called ‘predictable’, but the actual plot structure and the arc of its protagonist Thursday Next follows a relatively unsurprising path. Still, it’s great to read a novel as inventive as this one. I’m not sure if I’ll have a particularly strong memory of the actual plot of The Eyre Affair; it’ll be the hilarious little details about the world that’ll stick in my mind.
Fforde writes in a plain style which will be familiar to fans of the detective genre. This is part of what makes this novel so funny however, the somewhat blithe way in which ridiculous things are stated (a trick that Douglas Adams was a master of). This is actually an incredibly clever novel, but it’s not clever in a self conscious ‘look at me’ kind of way, impressing through its sheer inventiveness rather than clapping us around the head with bogus literary innovation.
Thursday is a likeable protagonist, not necessarily overburdened with personality, but she doesn’t really need to be. She reminded me of Arthur Dent; I know that I’ve mentioned Douglas Adams a lot in this review, as I feel that this is the book that he would have written if he wrote fantasy. There’s an amusing supporting cast, with the delightfully ‘evil for evils sake’ villain Hades Acheron coming out as my favourite character, with his amusing entourage of minions entertaining me as well. A lot of characters are archetypes, meant to reflect clichés in the detective genre, and they work well in this regard. The characterisation may not be particularly complex in The Eyre Affair, but at its heart this is a detective story, and since when has that been what detective stories are about?
The Eyre Affair is an interesting novel; on one hand it’s actually a really light read, but there’s complexity and intelligence woven throughout. The best comic writers of genre fiction, such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, do this really well, and based on The Eyre Affair it looks like Jasper Fforde has earnt a place alongside such distinguished names. I’m certainly sold, and look forward to soon reading some of the further adventures of Thursday Next.