Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Books – The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

Published in 2001, The Eyre Affair is the first in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, a series of comic fantasy detective novels. It’s set in a rather nonsensical but also rather wonderful alternate1980s, in which literature is so significant in the society’s culture that there is a particular branch of the police who deal solely with crimes involving books. Wales is an independent Republic, and England has been at war with Russia for over a hundred years. The narrative focuses around the adventures of one particular Literary Detective, a woman named Thursday Next.

Suffice to say, I did enjoy The Eyre Affair. Any book that begins with the theft of a valuable original manuscript of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit is bound to win me over. The details of this strange book are simply wonderful. I like that Thursday’s father can randomly stop and jump through time. I like that in this world literature seems to run people’s lives, that all the biggest admirers of Paradise Lost have legally changed their name to John Miklton. I like that they travel by airship. I like the intense discussion over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I like every literary reference. And, let’s be honest, it’s just fun that the protagonist is named Thursday Next.

The Eyre Affair reminds me massively of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Mon Amour. The books are very similar; both are comic detective novels set in an alternate 1980s, and both share a similar light tone. I think all in all I probably like The Eyre Affair more; both are great and entertaining openings to their series, but any novel with references to the Brontës, Dickens, and Anthony Trollope is always going to win me over. The Eyre Affair and Aberystwyth Mon Amour have the same strengths: a wry tone, great humour, and a wealth of beautifully thought-out details. Both made me laugh out loud.

However, they also share the same weakness. Like Aberystwyth Mon Amour, I found the plot of The Eyre Affair hard to follow at times. It’s a fast pace, complicated story, and sometimes you can feel Fforde having so much fun with the book that he forgets to slow down and make clear what’s happening. I couldn’t quite see the significance or the necessity of Thursday moving jobs quite so many times as she does in the first seventy-odd pages, and I found myself struggling at times to keep up. In a world this odd and complex it would be foolish to attempt to explain everything – and the epigraphs at the start of each chapter do help – but I still found myself a bit confused here and there.

It was the premise and humour of the world that really engaged me, not the characters or the writing, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in danger of missing the point. I love character depth and development, and because of my natural literary tastes some bit of me always wants psychological depth and internalisation – and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t a book for you. The characters aren’t especially deep and even though it’s told in first person, we never really see inside Thursday’s head. We’re told the way she feels about Landen, but we never really see it. However, I don’t ultimately think this is a problem. The only place I really felt that more emotion or depth was needed was in the discussion of the war. This is not a book that will move you to tears, but it will move you to laughter. It might affect my personal enjoyment of the book, but it doesn’t lessen the novel as a whole because that’s not what it’s aiming for. What The Eyre Affair might lack in character depth it makes up for in other ways: in brilliantly detailed humour, in a strange world that is a joy to inhabit for three-hundred-and-something pages, and – quite simply – in fun.

In short, silly but fun. I recommend it for an entertaining read, but I’m not sure it’s for everyone. You have to be prepared for eccentricity and strangeness, for quirkiness that is never explained, for a beautifully bizarre world and plot. It is contrived, and it is a bit silly, yes – but it’s also hilarious and clever and a real pleasure to read. So it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it is at least a bit mine. I have a feeling I may well be picking up another in the series in the future.

Greatest strength: The details, the premise, and the sheer fun Fforde clearly had writing it. It makes it fun to read as well.

Greatest weakness: As I said, I did find it a little confusing at times.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through.’

Next week: will be a guest review by Chris King, of Triumff, by Dan Abnett

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