Jasper Fforde (with two F’s, really) is a superstar in the world of contemporary literature. The Eyre Affair (2003) is the first in Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels which, with the release of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels last year, recently came back from a publishing hiatus. My general opinion is that anyone who reads books in English should pick up a copy. The book’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre (I’ve seen it catalogued as sci-fi, mystery, general fiction, and young adult fiction) supports my feeling that The Eyre Affair has something for everyone. (Find it on Bookshop.)
The novel is narrated by a woman named Thursday Next who lives in England. The year is 1985. But Thursday’s England is not one that many readers will recognize. To name but a few differences: Cloning has been viable since the 1970s when home cloning kits for Dodo’s were released, cheese is illegal, and Wales is still an independent republic.
Law enforcement in Fforde’s novel also takes a unique turn with the Special Operations Network that was created to “handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force.” There are thirty departments in the network ranging from SO-12—a unit called the ChronoGuard that polices time travel and “chronuption” while trying to maintain the Standard History Eventline—to SO-27: the Literary Detectives who have to deal with problems like Baconians who preach that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays along with more mundane problems like “illegal traders, copyright infringements and fraud.”
Thursday Next is a Literary Detective.
The real problems for our intrepid heroine start when Archeron Hades (the third most wanted criminal in the world) begins kidnapping characters from great literary works. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of her novel, thereby leaving it unreadable, the pressure is on to rescue her before one of England’s greatest novels is destroyed forever.
As that summary might suggest, Fforde packs a lot into this tome (the hardcover runs 374 pages). The beauty of all of The Eyre Affair is that he makes it look so easy. The Thursday Next novels work together with a dynamic almost unheard of in other contemporary series as Fforde seamlessly connects plot points and refers back to past events between novels to create a tight, engaging narrative that remains entertaining long after the first read.
Furthermore, Fforde isn’t afraid to have a little fun. Everything is up for grabs in this novel where vampires, time travel, and literature all play their part in the narrative. Fforde also takes known historical and literary facts and turns them upside down (as with Wales not being a part of the United Kingdom). It sounds like this tinkering would make the book confusing for readers without the proper background, but it really doesn’t. Some of the story’s subtleties might be lost but the main story doesn’t suffer in the least.
Part of the allure of The Eyre Affair and the rest of the series is that Fforde asks the hard questions about literature. Later novels look at the writing and reading process in such an inventive way that the adjective “mind-blowing” is a justified description. At the same time, Fforde looks at plot points in classic novels like Jane Eyre and tries to explain the reason behind the strange bits such as Jane and Rochester’s fortuitous reunion at the end of the story—often with the help of the characters in question. (Jane Eyre and Rochester both make appearances here.)
In the world of novels, this one is something completely new combining satire, sci-fi, mystery, and a touch of pop culture to create a book like no other. Fforde uses clear, succinct language to create an utterly convincing alternate England that readers will want to visit again and again (don’t worry, the series has five more novels with the promise of more to come).
Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Geek Fantasy Novel by E. Archer, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld