Until Jane Eyre was kidnapped I don’t think anyone – least of all Hades – realised quite how popular she was. It was as if a living national embodiment of England’s literary heritage had been torn from the masses.
I recently recognised in myself a wild affiliation with, and taste for, the absurd. After all, I ended up getting a whole circle of friends to watch the televisual debacle that is Craft Corner Death Match via my enthusiasm for it alone. As dismayed as they were, I quietly praised whatever maniac dreamt that puppy up and managed to get it to air to a bewildered public for 10 full episodes before it was canned because, unsurprisingly, ratings were poor.
Perhaps this is why I ejoyed The Eyre Affair so much. Everything about this novel, from the title, to the plot, to very names of the characters is absurd. Absurd to the point of being fairly ballsy on the part of its author.
Set in an alternate 1985, the Crimean War rages on, cloning has brought back pet dodos for the middle class, and art and literature is the central foundation on which all society rests. Militant Baconians heckle Shakespearean productions, rioting Raphaelites chant Renassaince slogans during celebration of the legalisation of surrealism and forging Byronic verse is an offence. Our hero is Thursday Next, she is an operative with the Literature division of Special Ops called LiteraTec. After an original Dickens manuscript is stolen, Next is drawn into hunt for a remorseless, homocidal megalomaniac called Acheron Hades. On the way she travels through a distortion in time, her aunt is lost in a Wordsworth poem and Jane Eyre is abducted out of the pages of Bronte’s original manuscript sparking nationwide panic.
Within twenty seconds of Jane’s kidnapping, the first worried member of the public had noticed strange goings on around the area of page 107 of their deluxe hidebound edition of Jane Eyre. Within 30 minutes all the lines into the British Museum library were jammed. Within two hours every LiteraTec department was besiged by calls from worried Bronte readers. Within four hours the president of the Bronte Federation had seen the Prime Minister.
This novel is hilarious. Every line reads like an inside joke, Fforde delivers every new character, every plot twist and turn of phrase with a sly smile to the reader. “See what I did there?” he says. “We are all so clever.” Something like a literary version of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, if it were written like a hardboiled detective story, it’s full of so many bizarre side notes that you will bore your friends with at dinner for weeks. I loved the names like Braxton Hicks, Bowden Cable, Victor Analogy. I loved the weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque performances of Richard III, complete with audience participation. It is ridiculous and unnecessary and completely wonderful. Even Mr Rochester turns out to be a fairly decent guy in the end. And I always thought he was a jerk.
Braxton waved his own copy of Jane Eyre at us.
‘You’ve read it, of course,” he said.
“There’s not much to read,” Victor replied. “Eyre was written in the first person; as soon as the protagonist has gone it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens next. My theory is Rochester becomes even more broody, packs Adele off to boarding school and shuts up the house.”
Of course, for every person who totally gets into this there will probably be about five who are just plain irritated by it. And the novel isn’t without its faults. The pacing gets pretty wobbly in the middle there, it takes until two thirds into the novel for the titular Eyre Affair to even begin. The ending quite improbably wraps up a series of loose ends in a few pages. But who cares about the specifics when you’re having this much fun? Besides, I’d kind of like to live in a world where people would picket Members of Parliament over a novel.
The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde: three and a half stars.
Read it if: you’re after something light hearted, you’re willing to have some fun, you’re not going to bore everyone with too many details.