“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (2001)

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eyre“My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

There is another 1985. In this one, literature and art are revered in the way that sport and religion are in our world. Criminals have turned their attentions to literary forgeries and art theft. Here, Richard III is performed with audience participation, Baconists go door-to-door insisting that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, and the truly dedicated have all changed their names to that of their favourite poet.

But because this is Jasper Fforde, there’s far more going on than just that. This is a world where time travel exists, vampires and werewolves stalk the streets, home-cloning kits have ensured that everyone has a pet dodo, the Crimean War is still raging, and a corporation called Goliath has a finger in every pie. Even then, I’m still simplifying. I’ve had to jump right in though because this world has been built so wonderfully from the bottom up, that I really have to try and stress what magic is going on in here.

Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective (or LiteraTec) who has just been temporarily promoted. From her lowly position in SpecOps 27, she has been called upon to assist SO5, a department so shady that no one’s quite sure what they do. But this time they’re after Acheron Hades, one of the most evil men in the world; a man who does evil acts just for the sheer joy of doing them. He has no motive, he just wants the world to suffer. As a former student of his, Thursday is able to identify him, as everyone else is having trouble on that front. While Hades appears human, he has a number of particular powers, such as the ability to convince people he’s not there, to hear his name whispered from a thousand yards away, and to be undamaged by bullets.

Thursday’s uncle, the genius but forgetful scientist Mycroft Next, has just invented another wonderful device, the Prose Portal. It allows people to travel in and out of fiction and explore their favourite tales first hand. But such a device, in the wrong hands, would prove very dangerous indeed, and with both Goliath and Acheron Hades after it, Mycroft is in serious danger. When Hades traps Mycroft’s wife Polly inside a Wordsworth poem, he then sets about killing a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, demanding a ransom before he does any more damage. After all, Chuzzlewit is one thing – people will get over a missing lodger. But Hades has set his sights on bigger targets, and when he kidnaps Jane Eyre from her own novel, only Thursday is brave enough to step inside the novel and put right what went wrong…

This was the first Fforde book I read, and indeed the first one published, and it won me over immediately. I don’t actually know how or why it took me so long to get round to him. The idea of being able to leap in and out of fiction is heaven to me, and it gets explored in far more depth in the upcoming installments. It’s hilarious, smart, original and everything that a good book should be. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m about to start off on some wild fanboying.

eyre 2Thursday Next is one of my favourite protagonists ever. Thirty-six years old, she seems different to so many heroes who have gone before her. She’s remarkably ordinary, a former soldier who suffered great loss in the Crimean War ten years before and is still struggling to get over it. Her biggest regret is losing her ex-lover, Landen Parke-Laine, and when he makes a reappearance in her life, she wants to set things right. Although some people probably complain that giving such an “action woman” a love story seems like it’s pigeon-holing women and saying they all want the same thing, I disagree. I’m against tacked-on love stories, but here it seems fitting. Besides, this isn’t Thursday risking it all for a man she’s just met – she and Landen have history. It never claims that this is what all women want, just what Thursday needs to be happy.

The extended cast are all wonderful. Acheron Hades is a great villain, although not my favourite in the Thursday Next series – she’s yet to come – and Thursday’s family are hilarious, not least the absent-minded Mycroft, and her time-travelling father, who has been scrubbed from history by his former colleagues after he went rougue in the Chronoguard (the department that cleans up messes in time) but still pops in to see his daughter from time to time. The other members of the SO departments including Spike Stoker, Bowden Cable, Braxon Hicks and Victor Analogy are also all superb, if only for their wonderful names – Fforde likes a name that serves as a pun. We also get to meet the cast of Jane Eyre, who are all too aware that they’re in a story. While Fforde resists giving Jane herself too many lines (he apparently didn’t want to mess too much with her out of respect), we do get to know Rochester very well.

It’s probably the fourth time I’ve read this book now – Rowling is probably the only author I’ve re-read more than Fforde – and every time I find something new in it; a joke I’ve missed, or some foreshadowing I ignored. Despite Jane Eyre being a key plot point in the book, this is the first time I’ve read The Eyre Affair after reading the original text, and while I loved it more than enough before, it makes it even better afterwards, to see Thursday skulking around the novel. Besides, at one point Thursday does explain the plot for Bowden Cable, so even those who haven’t read it can follow along. It’s such a clever concept, and Fforde does it with such skill that it’s a wonder this book isn’t better known. In some ways, I wish everyone knew about it, but in others, I like having a smaller, select group who seem to worship it.

The book has many lessons in it about the importance of literature, and love, but above all it’s consistently creative and plays with your expectations. Fforde has performed a miracle here, and throws so much into it that you race through wondering how all the plot threads will join up, if even at all. By the end, though, you can’t help be satisfied. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve ever read that successfully manages a car chase – they’re much easier in films.

It’s a must read for any lovers of literature at all, but in particular those with a love of the Brontës. After all, as Thursday herself says, “Governments and fashions come and go, but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

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The Eyre affair...

The Eyre affair…

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Last year, I embarked on the task of reading Jane Eyre. It was November, and since I was taking part in NaNoWriMo at the time, I figured that a (potentially) dull book would almost force me to spend time writing rather than reading. As it was, I got to a point nearly three weeks into the month and was only halfway through the book.

I gave up.

Then I had a spare week this month (I’m awaiting a book for a book club, more on that later, I’m sure) so I thought I’d read a few more chapters of this and get closer to the ending. As it was, I managed to fight my way through it a good deal quicker and have now finished it. Yes chaps, in a combined twenty-four days (the longest time it’s taken me to read a book since, I think, Stephen Baxter’s Evolution) and with a good deal of patience, I have completed another classic novel – something I don’t do very often.

I suppose I chose Jane Eyre because one of my favourite books is Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is well worth a read and is the story of what happens when Jane is kidnapped from the novel. Because it focuses rather a lot on the climax of the original novel, I knew what was going to happen, and maybe that is what caused the book to drag from time to time. Anyway, on with the review proper.

Miss Jane Eyre is an orphan, forced to live with a family who do not care for her; a nasty aunt Mrs Reed, and cousins who are mean to her and not chastised for being so. Jane has a sharp tongue and a temper she cannot always control, thus making her something of an outsider and not at all what girls of her age should become. She is soon shipped off to Lowood, a charity school run by the nasty Brocklehurst where, while the situation is often miserable, she meets good friends and learns much. After teaching there for a couple of years once her studies are over, she accepts a governess position for a young girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall.

Arriving, she finds that the master of the house is absent, but the other servants and housekeepers make her feel at home, and she carries on with Adele, spending time with her and helping her with her lessons. Soon, the mysterious Mr Rochester does indeed make an appearance, and while he’s grumpy and ugly, she is curious about him and finds herself attracted to this strange man. He, however, seems more intend on marrying bimbo Blance Ingram. That is, until Jane saves his life from an unexplained fire that nearly kills him. He claims the fire was started by servant Grace Poole, but he doesn’t sack her. Jane becomes convinced that there is something going on at Thornfield that she doesn’t know about, but no one will tell her what it is.

However, Rochester has now fallen for Jane and proposes. She accepts but on the day they come to be married, a lawyer turns up with an objection to the wedding. As everything comes crashing down around them and secrets and skeletons pour from the closets and the attics, it seems that Jane will never be happy…

What I found most surprising about this book is simply that it’s actually very good. I’m biased towards the classics, usually scorning them, but this is definitely one that has a right to last. That was partly why I wanted to finish it, because it’s a story I wanted to hear. The difficult bit comes with the language, which is frequently dense. I like to devour books, but this was like eating a whole deer raw with a fish knife. But despite its age and the language, there’s something incredibly modern about it.

Jane is not a woman content to sit around and wait for a husband and do the bidding of whatever man crosses her path. She is unafraid to shout at Rochester or others and tell them what she really thinks, arguing that they are equals, despite their gender. Jane is determined to make her own place in the world and not defer to a man. She will marry who and when she wants, not just because someone tells her it is time. Men continually try to establish dominance over her, and fail every time.

It may well be full of Biblical allusions that I don’t get, and Brontë might well take three hundred words to say what could be said in three, but despite it all, I absolutely did not hate the book. The story is excellent, compelling and a bit strange (not least the bit where Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy woman in order to entice secrets from Jane), with hints of the supernatural about it. It was also interesting to read having read the aforementioned The Eyre Affair, which turns this novel on its head. (Think of it as how The Wizard of Oz appears different after you’ve read or seen Wicked.) The emotions are raw and real, both Jane and Rochester are fascinating and likeable characters, and while the pace is occasionally slow, there’s something here that keeps you plowing on, even if not all in one go.

While I’m still not in favour of all the classics, this one has definitely been awarded a new fan.