Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
Twenty hand-picked reviewers. Twelve carefully-selected books.
Here’s how it works: On the first of every month (or the Friday before, if it falls on a weekend), we’ll announce our Review Project title for the month, and talk a little about why we’ve chosen it. The book may be an undisputed classic. It may be something you’ve never heard of. It may (or may not) be a Hodder publication.
Over the course of the month, we’ll feature reviews of the book from our Review Project participants. Each participant has been chosen because of the honest, thoughtful, critical consideration they bring to the reviews they publish elsewhere.
We were really happy when they picked The Eyre Affair as the first book as we both have been dying to read it for Old School Wednesdays!
Author: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Meta
Publisher: Hodder / Penguin
Publication date: First published in 2001
Paperback: 374 pages
There is another 1985, where London’s criminal gangs have moved into the lucrative literary market, and Thursday Next is on the trail of the new crime wave’s Mr Big.
Acheron Hades has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.
Thursday sets out to find a way into the book to repair the damage. But solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Perhaps today just isn’t going to be Thursday’s day. Join her on a truly breathtaking adventure, and find out for yourself. Fiction will never be the same again…
Standalone or series: Book 1 in the Thursday Next series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print Book + Ebook
The Eyre Affair takes place in a different version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where Winston Churchill was never the Prime Minister and WWII never happened. In fact the Crimean War is still going strong 100 years later, the megacorporation Goliath is in charge of almost everything, cloned pets (who wants a Dodo? I want a Dodo) are available to anyone and time travel is a reality (but what is “reality”). It is also a world where Literature (capital L) is taken seriously, where the ongoing discussions of Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays are divisive to the point of fanaticism and forging words are punishable by law.
Thursday Next is a War Veteran currently working as a Special Operative in Literary Detection. She is a competent, dedicated operative who is slightly bored by her current work. So when she is invited to work for the mysterious SpecOps 5 investigating the criminal acts of Acheron Hades – her former professor and one of the world’s greatest villainous minds – she says yes. But the operation doesn’t work that well and Hades dies. Except Thursday is not entirely convinced: given Hades’ supernatural powers she knows he must have faked his death. And when Jane Eyre, one of the world’s most beloved characters is kidnapped from her book, Thursday will do everything in her power to prevent literary homicide.
I do not know what to make of The Eyre Affair. On the one hand there’s plenty here with huge potential: Thursday is a brilliant character, a great female protagonist who is extremely competent at what she does and who is a War Veteran. I also loved some of the snippets of this alternate world: how fun that literature is so important and instigates such passionate following! How awesome that Shakespeare’s Richard III is often played with audience’s input like Rocky Horror Picture Show! And being a lover of all things time travel I especially loved Thursday’s time travelling father who constantly dropped by and also introduces the idea that history is constantly changing.
On the other hand….everything else. This is a book that relies explicitly and heavily on the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and to buy into the premise of the story – a decision needs to be made really early: to simply “go with the flow” or to question everything one reads. Although I started fully enthusiastic about the book, the more I read the less I was able to enjoy it. I had problems with the content, with the lack of internal logic and with the writing itself.
Starting with the latter: one of the most glaring problems of The Eyre Affair is how it often feels amateurish. It starts early in the book when Thursday looks at a mirror and proceeds to describe her looks. Then the problems continue: the book is written in a first person narrative which is ostensibly done by Thursday but which at times shifts into other people’s minds whilst still being narrated by her. Confusing and clumsy? Yes.
Although sometimes one can give a pass to a debut author (this is Jasper Fforde’s first novel after all), this becomes almost impossible when other problems surface.
The manner which Hades is ultimately defeated in such a painfully obvious way that it surprises me that no one ever, in the history of always has thought of within the context of this novel. It’s problematic given the amount of Special Ops Departments that exist in this world and some of those deal exactly with this type of villain.
Then we have the romantic relationship between Thursday and her ex, Landen. At the start of the novel they have been apart for ten years, without having spoken to each other at all for that amount of time because of a difficult situation that took place when they were both fighting in the War. When they meet again, Landen is engaged to someone else, about to get married but is willing to break it off as soon as he sees Thursday. So far so good: these things happen. The problem is to me, the immediate vilification of the Other Woman, the appalling treatment of that other female character and the portrayal of “marriage” as an optimum status that everybody wants. Thursday is constantly thinking about how old she is and how she should be married. Landen is constantly saying the same (and that’s why he decided to marry his fiancée) and above all, this is also applied to Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte in a way that is REALLY reductive.
And this finally brings me to the Eyre affair itself which is probably my main problem with the novel.
In this world, Jane Eyre ends with Jane and Rochester apart, Jane going off to Africa with her cousin. Inasmuch as the book is unanimously loved, it is a fact that everybody thinks that the ending sucks and why didn’t Jane and Rochester get married in the end (this only works of course to the reader who knows exactly that Jane and Rochester do end up together in the original Jane Eyre).
The idea here, proposed by a secondary character but reinforced by the narrative itself, is thusly:
“We try to make art perfect because we never manage it in real life and here is Charlotte Bronte concluding her novel – presumably something which has a sense of autobiographical wishful thinking about it – in a manner that reflects her own disappointed love life. If I had been Charlotte I would have made certain that Rochester and Jane were reunited – married, if possible.”
Although this could be interpreted as social commentary on our world’s obsession with romance the fact remains that the way this plays out in this novel, shows its reductive interpretation of literature in general and of Jane Eyre in particular in a way that infers that Charlotte Bronte wrote the romance between Rochester and Jane Eyre as wishful thinking.
One of the main themes of the novel is the relationship between literature and real life and the blurred lines between those. Characters in books are as real as we are and have self-awareness. More to the point: the core precept is that in this world everything can be rewritten – history, personal lives AND books. So Thursday gets into Jane Eyre to help Jane Eyre and ends up changing it into what everybody feels it “should be”.
It doesn’t help that Thursday does all the saving with the help of Rochester and that both of them make sure that Jane Eyre is not “disturbed.” The lack of internal logic here is mind-blowing: they to do all the saving without Jane’s help because it is imperative to not disturb Jane Eyre’s first person narrative in order not to change the novel (even though the novel is continuously changed anyway) . So let me get this straight: everybody within Jane Eyre is self-aware about know they are “playing roles” APART from Jane Eyre herself who must be “protected” at all costs. Why give the benefit of self-awareness to every single character ever but not to Jane Eyre. Because this is so that she can be placed in the role of damsel in distress!
At one point Thursday’s father, who is definitely an authoritative figure within the book with his knowledge of time travel and of History, says that everything is possible. And this is just it: everything is possible within Thursday Next’s world. And this is what it boils down to and going back to the start when I was talking about suspension of disbelief. This is a book that needs the reader’s complicity in order for it to work.
And don’t even get me started on the names. In this book we have: Victor Analogy, Paige Turner, Jack Schitt, Acheron Hades, Thursday Next and I suppose this is intended to be tongue-in-cheek but this type of humour just misses the mark so completely for me but ok, now I am just nit-picking.
I love it when we disagree here at Book Smugglers’ Headquarters.
I completely and wholeheartedly understand Ana’s reaction to this book, and I agree on many counts. The writing is a little shaky and overly-indulgent, the story sprawling and disorganized, and there’s so much concerted effort directed at Being Clever that the book becomes irritating, rather than entertaining. In short, The Eyre Affair is a victim of its own excessive Excessiveness – there are so many ideas, names, and quirks, so much clever divergence from real world history versus this parallel world’s history. While most of these tweaks, such as the clever extension of the Crimean War or the argument as to how Jane Eyre should have ended, are clever and easily accessible, there were a plethora of other less-funny/less-well-known references that felt indulgent and exclusionary (I know plenty of these references went over my head – to apply a tv-ism, I felt a little bit like Leonard when Sheldon and Amy play their counter-factual world game).
It sounds like I didn’t like this book, now, doesn’t it? That, dear friends, is not true at all. This is actually the second book I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Jasper Fforde – the first was Shades of Grey, an oddball speculative fiction novel that I loved very, very much (it was one of my favorite reads of 2010). Given that I was already familiar with the author’s style, I started reading the novel already slightly predisposed to like it. And, in fact, I highly enjoyed The Eyre Affair in spite of its excesses – I love the concept of this parallel world, I adore heroine Thursday Next, and I am a fan of Jasper Fforde’s wonky, wonderful sense of humor and style.
Easily, for me, the biggest draw to the book is its heroine, Thursday. A Crimean War veteran with a sad, painful history having lost her brother during a failed attack, Thursday is an anti-war war hero and very good at her new job as an investigator. Even though she works for the politically and numerically insignificant SpecOps 27, she takes her job seriously and jumps at the chance to investigate with SpecOps 5 – of course it all goes to hell, but I admire Thursday’s gumption and no-nonsense attitude. I also like her blend of vulnerability and strength – she kinda reminds me of Jane Eyre (albeit not Fforde’s version of Jane Eyre), and a little bit of snarky, hyper-competent Dana Scully at the same time. The other big draw to the novel, in my opinion, is the wonderful, slippery world that Fforde has envisioned in this parallel universe, complete with time travel, all-powerful private corporations, and endless, secretive bureaucracy. I loved the kinda-sorta steampunk flavor to the technology, and the absurdity of certain elements (Thesaurus worms! Pet dodos! Babbage Charge Cards!).
Ultimately, The Eyre Affair managed to entertain me, despite some heavy-handed moments (especially towards the end of the book) and contrived writing (namely the scene in which Thursday explains the plot of Jane Eyre to her colleague, for the transparent benefit of anyone reading this book who may not have read Jane Eyre) – but as this is such an ambitious book, not to mention Fforde’s debut, I was willing to go with it. Overall, I enjoyed the book and there’s plenty of potential for future growth. Maybe I’ll be back to visit Thursday in the future.
Ana: 4 – Bad, but not without some merit
Thea: 6 – Good, recommended with reservations
Reading Next: To be decided!
Buy the Books:
(click on the links to purchase)