Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Short Excursion into the Novel: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

When I first read The Eyre Affair (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) a decade ago, its whimsical world enthralled, yet also perplexed me. Certain that many of its quips and literary references had flown clear over my young head, I felt inspired to go brush up on classic English literature. For The Eyre Affair is a book lover’s book, as Jasper Fforde weaves the familiar with the outlandish to create a novel that pays tribute to the cultural legacy of stories, while crafting a tale that’s remarkably original and unexpectedly smart.

Fforde's first novel, The Eyre Affair shows us mid-80s England through the looking glass, as described by police detective Thursday Next. In Thursday’s world, literature remains the pop culture medium of choice, the Crimean war rages on, and dodos make excellent pets. When an unusual book theft turns out to have links to Thursday’s past, she’s called in to help investigate. What follows is action-adventure that ranges from gripping thriller to Monty Pythonesque lunacy, climaxing with a voyage into Charlotte Brontë’s opus itself.

As I’ve often told a skeptical reader, don’t let the sometimes splashy cover art – or the presence of famous fictional characters – drive you away. Yes, the story includes many sci-fi/fantasy staples, including time-travel and quasi-magical technological gadgetry. However, these form a backdrop to a group of wonderfully original characters, Thursday herself one of the best among them. Her wry, deadpan voice makes the weirdness of her world seem almost blasé, as if it were not a peculiar corruption of our own, but exactly as it should be. Travelling by airship? Modern and practical. Richard III performed as an interactive show, Rocky Horror-style? A typical evening’s entertainment. As a result, when The Eyre Affair asks its readers to believe six impossible things before breakfast, we’re more than happy to suspend our disbelief and take strangeness in stride.

Author Jasper Fforde (Photo: Murdo Macleod)
While such a direct titular reference to another novel might still seem off-putting to some, Fforde avoids straying into the clichés of fanfiction by giving his borrowed characters a surprising sense of self-awareness. They know they’re fictional, that they live in linear narratives, and that they’re brought to life by readers. They exist almost as actors, sometimes quite different from the characters they ‘portray’ when a reader picks up a copy of Jane Eyre or Martin Chuzzlewit. When Thursday stumbles upon evidence of fictional characters in the ‘real’ world, she finds herself in the well-trodden middle ground between ‘fact’ and fiction, uncovering how stories can both reflect and reform those who read and write them.

While The Eyre Affair doesn’t delve into this as deeply as it might have done – perhaps a missed opportunity – later books in the Thursday Next series explore this theme more directly. The series also grows more outlandishly fantastic over the next five books, as Fforde becomes more confident in his world-building – a trend I expect to continue in the seventh Thursday Next book, Dark Reading Matter, due later this year. A few other minor kinks get smoothed out as well, as the villains in The Eyre Affair border on the cartoonish; dastardly ruffians who, while comical, would have benefited from more flushed-out backstories. Acheron Hades (one of the book's less subtly named characters) takes the Moriarty-style nemesis archetype and amps it up to 11. In spite of this, Fforde’s first volume remains unpredictably entertaining, thanks to a narrative that takes whimsy and runs with it.

I’ve had more than one person tell me they ‘don’t read fantasy’ or like ‘books about real things’. And granted, a novel like this – more in the vein of Terry Pratchett than the Brontës – isn’t for everyone. Yet even though Fforde takes our common conception of physics and history and bins it, the characters he presents remain real, flawed human beings. I’ve reread The Eyre Affair several times, and found a new little ‘aha!’ moment each time I return. It’s that joy of the imagination, of seeing the remarkable in the ordinary, that Fforde captures so well, and that makes for a great story.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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