Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.
After some careful prodding from a few people, I decided it was about time I gave Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series a go. There is no real way to summarise this book – it’s a whirlwind of ideas, genres and comedy. The Eyre Affair never confines itself clearly to one genre. It really is a book of pretty much every genre going – both through its style and content. The very nature of The Eyre Affair defies easy genre categorisation.
It has elements of the literary, science fiction, fantasy, crime, romance, comedy, thriller and more besides. It’s not a particularly long novel, but it packs a serious amount into its length and, for me at least, remains consistently entertaining.
The book is structured from the 1st-person point of view of the LiteraTec Detective Thursday Next. The main plot of the novel is mostly that of a crime thriller, following an overtly evil villain named Archeron Hades and his plot to become the most notorious criminal of all time. (On a side note, the names in this novel are all ridiculous – but that’s part of the joke. A personal favourite was Runcible Spoon. After all, Dickens gave us names like Ebenezer Scrooge, Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge.)
But really, the overarching plot is simply a vehicle for Fforde to show off his incredible imagination. This is an alternate history where something in time has gone seriously wrong. Science has developed to a point where the most ridiculous of inventions (no matter how scientifically amazing they may be) are seen as nothing particularly special. It takes something huge to get the bigwigs interested.
In Fforde’s world, books are the be all and end all. Every area of society is built on the importance of books, from the media, to the police; the government to entertainment. It’s a fun world to get caught up in – I found myself chuckling at lots of little references to other books.
The characters in The Eyre Affair are all fairly colourful. They’re deliberately over-the-top and felt like they were (in some cases literally) ripped from the pages of fiction. Grounding us in this bizarre world is the character of Thursday herself. In amongst the weirdness, Thursday constantly questions and explains to the reader what’s going on. Yes, there are a few big questions left at the end, but I suspect these will be expanded upon in the sequels. She is an entertaining character to have as the lens to this world; although she is more grounded than most, she still has a few quirky foibles of her own.
The Eyre Affair is a novel which complete defies all sense of logic and genre boundaries, and yet remains entertaining despite its completely wacky premise and utterly bonkers plot. It is a great introduction to a strange, alternate history where things are seriously wrong, setting up even greater things to come. It has thrilling moments, humour throughout and an exciting plot with a great climax. And it has the greatest version of Richard III I’ve ever come across. Lots of fun, and I’ll be reading the sequel as soon as I can.