by Jasper Fforde



374pp/$23.95/February 2002

The Eyre Affair

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The best way to describe Jasper Fforde’s debut novel The Eyre Affair is as a James Bond-style melodrama set in an alternative world which was designed by the lovers of English literature.  This book, which appears to be the first in a series, pits Special Operations agent Thursday Next against her former instructor, the third most wanted man in the world, Acheron Hades, a literary Moriarty whose goal seems to be the destruction of literature as it is known and loved.

In the course of her adventures, Fforde introduces a variety of eccentric characters ranging from Thursday’s Uncle Mycroft who is this world’s answer to Thomas Edison and “Q” to the enigmatic Goliath Corporation front man Jack Schitt.  Given the size of Fforde’s cast and the caricature features he provides so many of the characters with, it is to his credit that he manages to imbue almost all of his characters with a sense of humanity.

Even when details of Fforde’s world don’t hold up as well as his characters, the novel is still enjoyable.  History, in general, seems to run along the same lines as in our own world with a few changes which don’t seem to have a major effect.  The Crimean War is still being fought in 1984, although mostly as a cold war.  Wales is a separate country from England, and Lenin seems to have had a role in Welsh statehood, leaving Russia to the tsars.  Just as they Red Queen believed four impossible things before breakfast, so, too, does Fforde ask his readers to believe in the impossible, and his revised political history is least of those impossibilities.

Acheron Hades’ plans for domination rely on the most improbable recent invention of Mycroft Next, a “Prose Portal” which permits the transportation of people from the real world into the world of literature.  Almost anyone who was forced to read a disliked book in school will be able to sympathize with Hades’ plans for Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. 

Fforde’s image of the world of literature is one of the most realized pieces of background in the novel.  Characters in books are completely aware of their position within a narrative and the course the book is supposed to take.  Nevertheless, when they are not the focus of the book, they are able to lead their own lives.  Discussions between Thursday and Rochester (from Jane Eyre) form some of the most interesting parts of the novel.

A few sequences stand out, most notably a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” which has been given the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” treatment.  Fforde’s world is a mixture of literature, lit theory and humor in ratios which work quite well.  Thursday’s various discussions about the true author of Shakespeare’s canon (there are door-to-door Baconites instead of Jehovah’s Witnesses) are interesting without coming to any real conclusion.

The Eyre Affair is a diverting read which should be taken at face value.  Any attempts to dissect what Fforde is doing or provide a rationale behind it are likely to destroy much of the enjoyment of the novel.  While a few of Fforde’s tangents appear unnecessary, they add to the texture of the novel and may be explained in additional installments of the adventures of Thursday Next.

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