When I was in my mid-teens, I discovered Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It quickly became a favorite book of mine, and one that I read every year or so in the spring time (it’s become part of my personal literary tradition). So, while wandering through Chapters, my eye was immediately drawn to my latest read, The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, and my curiosity was peaked. I know the story of JE so well, that I’m always curious to see how others view it, and how they would use in for inspiration.
The Eyre Affair is set in 1980s England in a historical stream very different from the one we lived through; in Fforde’s world, the Crimean War is entering its 132 year, the state bureaucracy is built on almost 30 levels of Special Operative departments, werewolves and vampires wander amongst the people, time travel is de rigueur, and a whole host of other pieces of our known history have change (notably, those pieces related to Churchill, Wellington, the Nazis, etc). The main character in The Eyre Affair is Thursday Next, a LiteraTech, that is a SpecOps-27, one of the bureaucratic cogs assigned to crimes against literature; fraud, forgeries, misrepresentations, etc. When a copy of the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit goes missing, Next is called in to investigate. What follows is an adventure in time and (literary) space as Next works to protect the beloved literary work Jane Eyre from a mad-man who is bent on reeking havoc for the sake of having some fun.
This book is so far from the average read (in many ways) that it is almost indescribable. To start off with, Fforde has taken such a very non-flappable approach to rewriting our shared history that he has to be commended; I found it completely believable that dodo birds have become a popular personal pet, no matter what genetic splicing accident they were afflicted with. Not only did Fforde mess with the readers’ accepted reality of history, he also bent our understanding of the physical world; an invisible car? Sure. Totally believable. But what I appreciated the most was Fforde’s creation of a society that placed such a high premium on its literary tradition. An entire government department (with regional offices!) dedicated to ensuring the consistency and veracity of literature? I would happily live in a world where time vortexes can open up on a freeway if I could live in a culture that so treasured the written word so much. This ability to capture the imagination of the reader is capped off with an unctuous writing style; almost like the whipped cream on a slice of pie, the foundations of the book are strong, but accented by the skills of the writer in forming beautiful turns-of-phrase and chains-of-thought.
While the plot and writing style are unique, where Fforde really hits his stride is in creating his characters. Thursday Next is a no-nonsense operative with a whole host of skills at her disposal, and a whole host of baggage that comes with her everywhere which she can’t seem to shake. Her nemesis, Acheron Hades, would be a lovable rogue, if he weren’t so bent on creating havoc and destruction for no purpose other than to live up to his name. Next’s coworkers, family and friends all have their own personal backgrounds, history, and quirks that, while not fully explained, are presented so calmly and clearly, that you feel like you know their personal histories without actually having been given anything of the sort. Most interestingly of all, however, is the way that Fforde makes literary characters come to life. I won’t say more on that aspect of this book, but trust me – it’s amazingly, creatively, and uniquely done.
So, final verdict? Oh my god, read this book. This book was a real book-hangover read for me; I’m still trying to extract myself from the world that Fforde has created. A large part of my wants to rush over to my local Chapters and pick up the rest of the books in the series, and that’s definitely something I’ll be doing this week. And what higher recommendation can I give? In a world where we’re all busy to the extreme (and have no ChronoGaurd to help us sort things out), I’m desperate to give away my time and money to spend more time in the world that Fforde has created. I can’t say it enough: go out, and read this book!