The Eyre Affair
By Jasper Fforde
Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Susan Duerdan
I had been meaning to read something in this series, “Thursday Next,” for quite some time now, but what with having to read and reread everything that I write myself (and yet I still never eradicate all the typos so that some of my friends call me the “Typo Knig”) I just had not found the time. But when I came into possession for several audio-books of the series they definitely got into my “must listen to” list.
Thursday Next is the unlikely name of a literary detective and the first person protagonist of the Thursday Next series. One might wonder what a literary detective is. Well apparently her job is verify literary manuscripts as either genuine or, more likely, forgeries. She is a member of a governmental agency, Special Operations (or SpecOps) 25 (I think… it gets a bit confusing). Also apparently it seems that this is a much bigger problem in her world than it ever could be in ours as evidence that there is a governmental agency set up to handle such issues.
The world the story is set in is actually very badly flawed is that there’s just too much going on in it than is needful for the story to take place. It is an alternate history – not only that but there is time travel (her father is a renegade Chronoguard agent) and some governments use it to change history to their benefit. Also the Crimean War is still going on, England is a republic with George Formby as its president (Seriously? Next, you’ll expect me to think Ronald Reagan could have been president of the US – instead of Bonzo), Wales is a Socialist state and apparently Thursday’s Dad is constantly contacting her to figure out what’s changed now… The nature of the world’s history has no real bearing on the core of the story so it’s all just confusing window dressing.
All that by itself might not be too much, but we also have alternative physics (of which I think time travel is part) and Thursday’s uncle is an inventor of some pretty improbably stuff, but he is the inventor of the device she used to enter the story of Jane Eyre, so that is acceptable. It later turns out that some few people have the ability to enter stories by their own talents which is a slight stretch, but again acceptable since if a machine can do it, it might just be tapping in to a natural ability that some people have.
Where the setting of the story gets needlessly complex is that this is also a fantasy world with resurrected dodo birds (that is probably a Science Fictional aspect… cloning and all) Neanderthals, werewolves and vampires. And that is where there is just too much. There is nothing about the story that needs an on-going Crimean War, and even less than nothing about it needs the existence of Vampires, werewolves, Time anomalies or a megalithic corporation (Goliath Corporation) that actually controls the government. Seriously, drop most of that and the story won’t change much.
Also literature is apparently taken so seriously there are even pseudo-religious evangelical types going for door to door spreading the word that Sir Francis bacon wrote the works of William Shakespeare. There are so many convenient differences in this world I am certain it sets an all-time record for the number of deus ex machina plot devices.
What saves this book is that it is really a very good story. I still maintain that most of the background rubbish is just that and I found myself intellectually insulted by the names of many of the characters, especially the baddies. Acheron Hades and Jack Schitt. Really? Amazing how I can tell they’re the bad guys from just their names… a strange lack of originality in a story that is amazingly imaginative otherwise. In a way they remind me of the names of the characters in the original Battlestar Galactica where you could almost always tell who the good and bad guys were just from their names. “Hey this Cylon’s name is Lucifer. And this mysterious stranger calls himself “Karybdis. “Hmm, sounds like such friendly names… must be the good guys, right?”
There were several other characters with punning names that I just found tiresome, but it is a good story even with these tiresome and sometimes puerile deficiencies.
I have frequently said that a good story will make up for a multitude of sins, but this one certainly sets a record, so what we have is an engaging detective novel with fantasy and science fiction elements, lots of comedy and action and I must say having a decent knowledge of literature (especially Jane Eyre) helps one to enjoy the story. Anyway Thursday must save Jane Eyre by going into the story (actually into the original manuscript where if anything is changed it will be changed for everyone) and stopping Acheron Hades from killing of otherwise damaging the main characters.
It is an interesting concept and well-written story, but I think it could have been much better had Mister Forde resisted to urge to put too much into his alternate world or had he used a bit of imagination in naming many of his characters and left out scatological names. Oh well, sometimes writers are just too impressed by their own sense of cleverness.
The setting of the story might have its major flaws, but Susan Duerdan reads the novel in a fun and engaging manner. I am not sure how I might have envisioned the voice of Thursday Next had I read the book, but now Ms Duerdan has defined that voice indelibly for me. She’s is bright and perky almost, but not quite, to the point of being more than I could bear, and yet it works for me. I am fairly certain I might not have finished the book. As I said above it is a good story, but the depth of surrealistic and frequently unlikely details that one needs to wade through might have been enough to stop me had Ms Duerdan’s cheerfully charming voice not been there to persuade me to join her in the adventure.
So, good story, but you may find it difficult to get into as there is very little to anchor the reader for the first three quarters of the story, but if you listen to the audiobook, you may just decide to stay put for the entire trip and find it worth the journey.