The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

NEL, 2001, 384 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-73356-X

Every book has an intended audience, and it’s not hard to see that The Eyre Affair is best dedicated to hard-core book lovers, avid readers and English Literature majors. Who else could appreciate this mixture of romance, adventure, mystery and fantasy in an alternate universe where the Crimean war still unfolds in 1985, where time travel is not unheard of, where the written word is still the dominant form of entertainment and where people can travel in and out of novels?

Oh yes, Jasper Fforde’s fiction is aimed straight at the intellect of people who wish that coin-operated Shakespeare quoting booths were installed in every train station. That Richard III showings had the popularity of camp ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW revivals. That there would be such a thing as a “literary detective”, ill-paid would it be.

In the meantime, we can live vicariously through the adventures of the capable Thursday Next, a SpecOps agent with curious family relations, much historical baggage and a messed-up sentimental life. A classified assignment with SO-9 quickly turns ugly as arch-criminal Acheron Hades (such a great character name!) kills off her partner and escapes in the wilderness. It gets more complicated when the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is stolen and Hades starts messing with the novel, changing all copies of the book worldwide…

Oh, what a charming alternate universe is weaved by Fforde in this first volume of what looks like an open-ended series (three more volumes have been published so far; reviews forthcoming). Satiric and believable, with enough hooks to allow further development if needed, Thursday Next’s universe is a book lover’s fondest wish come true. Barriers between fiction and reality are malleable, the written word reigns supreme and one never quite knows what’s going to happen next.

As you may guess, the reading pleasure derived from The Eyre Affair is considerable. Narrator Next is a capable heroine with just enough problems to make her sympathetic and even the avalanche of convenient coincidences (let’s see: her father is a renegade time-traveller, her uncle is a genius inventor, she’s an ex-student of Hades and all of those things come into play as the plot unfolds) doesn’t do much to dampen our amusement.

Perhaps the best thing about it is the sense that this is unabashedly high-brow comedy. I may not have caught all the literary references, but it doesn’t change the comfortable sense of being in an imagined universe that’s utterly sympathetic to hard-core readers. References fly high and low, but catching them all isn’t necessary in order to derive considerable enjoyment out of the whole tale.

Also worth noting is the easy way Fforde mixes and matches genres in order to develop his story. While a thriller template forms the backbone of The Eyre Affair, it also features a substantial romance and borrows the atmosphere of classic comedy. The alternate universe in which Thursday Next operates is introduced through techniques borrowed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, leading to a book you can equally lend to SF fans and mainstream readers.

Some will say that this book could only have been written in Great Britain, and they’re probably right: It co-exist comfortably alongside the dry wit of series such as Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld sequence while possessing its own distinct identify.

What else is there to say in order to convince you to go out and buy this book? You know you you are. You already know if a trip to an alternate universe in which books are wildly popular appeal to you. If not, what are you doing reading this review?

(Sequel: Lost in a Good Book)

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