The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde
I’ve heard of the Thursday Next series off and on–I’ve seen fellow students walking around with a copy, and, of course, it was recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. (I must mention that I drew up a great deal of my reading list from Pearl’s Book Lust and More Book Lust, which is why it pops up in my reviews so often.) The more I heard about it, the more I liked it–alternate history, a dash of science fiction, a dollop of detection, and a heaping spoonful of action/adventure… it’s almost perfectly engineered for me. It’s a marvel I haven’t gotten around to reading them before! Obviously, I started off with the first in the series, The Eyre Affair.
The Eyre Affair introduces us to a slightly different universe–Wales is its own republic, the Crimean War has been going forever (versus an Imperial Russia), literature is taken so seriously gang wars erupt over the question of “Who wrote Shakespeare?”, and England is a police state in the grip of the Goliath Corporation, which helped it recover after World War II. It’s 1985, and Thursday Next, a Crimean War veteran, is a literary detective in England’s Special Operations. Her life gets complicated after a stakeout of criminal mastermind Acheron Hades is botched and a minor character from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is found murdered in very real reality–and Hades has his sights set on his next victim, a young lady by the name of Jane Eyre…
Fforde’s alternate England is a delight to learn about. The Eyre Affair is written from Thursday’s perspective, and each chapter begins with a quotation from someone’s diary, a textbook, a letter, or a memoir. Fforde nimbly informs us about his England without making his characters go out of their way. Thursday’s father, a ChronoGuard Special Operative on the run from his own department, is a time traveler who pops in at inopportune (and one very opportune) moments. Fforde occasionally uses him to make references to our own time, such as the ultimate fate of Winston Churchill and his own conspiracy theories involving French revisionists. These jokes made the history nerd in me sigh in delight.
The bureaucratic nightmare that is Special Operations (separated into thirty or so departments) is stunningly realistic, from a coworker who harbors a crush on Thursday to Thursday’s spineless boss. The Eyre Affair is (mostly) a detective novel at heart, and Thursday needs to butt heads with idiot bosses and tell them to shove the regs where the sun don’t shine. She succeeds admirably.
Thursday is a wonderful and very human character–my favorite image of her is when, after a long, hard day, she retires to a nice, hot bath… with a bottle of gin and tonic. Her experience in the Crimea has shaped her, including the loss of her brother and the perceived betrayal of her one-time fiancé, Landen. Fforde makes it clear that Thursday is not a stunning beauty–indeed, she tells us she identified with Jane Eyre as a young girl because Jane was not a beauty either. She’s smart, capable, and marvelously brave, standing up to Goliath agents despite the fact that she can’t really do anything. Of course, Thursday has her flaws, mostly in love, but also in her occasional rashness.
Thursday’s adversary, Acheron Hades, is just perfect. A completely amoral and evil bastard with all the camp and ego of an old school comic book villain, Hades writes books about the wonderful joy of murder and delights in living up to his name. (His brother’s name is Styx. What sadistic and/or Goth parents.) He makes his evil missions harder for himself for fun, although he hardly plays fair. He’s the perfect foil for practical Thursday.
There’s a sense of quirkiness that pervades the novel, in the vein of Terry Prachett, Douglas Adams, and Monty Python, of which the very literal character names are a part of. It almost feels like quite a natural step for young adult readers of Harry Potter to start the Thursday Next series. There’s also a marvelous metafictionality to it, as Thursday traverses Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester’s conversation with Thursday about his fictional existence reminded me of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, one of my favorite plays. The climax of the novel, which occurs within Jane Eyre, is thrilling on this account.
The action is very well done. There’s a small piece where Thursday, coming to the aid of a fellow Special Operative, dispatches a vampire–it’s short, but quite chilling. Shootouts occur frequently, and Acheron Hades commits truly inspired acts of violence and evil. The climactic battle is quite a page turner, with a marvelous usage of Mrs. Rochester.
I must admit, I’ve only read Jane Eyre once, as a little girl. Of course, I don’t remember anything about it. Those who have read it recently will enjoy The Eyre Affair all the more. I may have to reread The Eyre Affair after I’ve properly read Jane Eyre, just to soak in the full effect. The intertextuality is delicious.
It warmed my heart to see how seriously literature was taken in Thursday’s world. People change their name to their favorite authors all the time–Thursday stumbles into a John Milton conference at a hotel. Characters debate the question of who wrote Shakespeare all the time. Richard III is performed with as much audience participation as an English pantomime or an American Rocky Horror night. I wish I lived in such a literary paradise.
My only quibble is that it occasionally feels as though the novel should be written from the third person. Thursday sometimes knows too much, such as the epicenter of a seizing man’s pain. Naturally, scenes depicting Hades plotting away are necessary. But now that Fforde’s written this one in first person, I assume all the rest are in first person, too. It’s a very small price to pay for such a marvelous story!
Bottom line: The Eyre Affair is a thrilling mix of alternate history, science fiction, detective story, and action/adventure, with the cherry of metafictionality on top. Thursday Next’s literary adventures are not to be missed, although I do advise brushing up on your Jane Eyre before reading The Eyre Affair.
I rented this book from the public library.