A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I suspect many of us have those guilt-inducing books on our shelves – you know the ones; those that we’ve had for years and years, intending to read. It’s worse when the book in question is one that you’ve (ahem) had borrowed from a friend for nearly a decade. Sorry, Phu, I will return The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde to you – but I’m afraid I might not be able to return it with the glowing enthusiasm that I’d predicted.
There was no particularly good reason that The Eyre Affair hadn’t made it to the top of my reading list. I’d been dimly aware of it ever since publication in 2001, and been firmly intending to read it since around 2007 – but it took its arrival on our book group rota for me finally to pick it up. And… reader, I was disappointed.
I was so excited at the premise of The Eyre Affair – or what the blurb told me the premise was. I almost don’t want to mention it, but I suppose the publishers have already put it out into the world. This is what they claim is the plot:
Acheron Hades has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.
That sounds like quite a fun idea, doesn’t it? Well, that is not what The Eyre Affair is about. It doesn’t happen until almost 300 pages of this 370 page novel are over – indeed, Jane Eyre doesn’t appear until around then. The only reason this is in the title and blurb is because far fewer people have read Martin Chuzzlewit, which crops up much more.
Let’s take a step or two back. The novel is set in an alternative reality 1985 (the year I was born, y’all) where the Crimean War has been fought for over a hundred years and – gloriously – the mainstays of society are culture and literature, rather than sport or reality TV or whatever. There are jukeboxes on street corners that will recite Shakespeare; there are huge black markets in literature, and people go and see Richard III over and over, with audience participation much like that for The Rocky Horror Show.
Into this fray is Thursday Next – our oddly-named heroine who works for SpecOps 27 as a Literary Detective. Acheron Hades is believed to be behind the stealing of a valuable manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit – and possibly also influencing other existing copies by making edits to the world of it. Hades is dangerous, evil, and cruel. He also has supernatural powers (including taking on the forms of other people), as Thursday discovers in a violent contretemps with him. He is, indeed, such a caricature of evil that I found him rather difficult to read – partly because it’s unpleasant, and mostly because it’s uninteresting.
This was my problem with The Eyre Affair, ultimately. I just found it dull. There are so many wonderful details (my favourites coming from her crackpot inventor uncle, Mycroft, whose creations include a notepad that translates through the carbon copy sheets below – but mistranslates on the lower ones if you don’t press hard enough). Fforde’s imagination is beautiful, and he obviously loves literature – it was great fun to spot the influences and details he incorporates, from character names to stray allusions, and I’m sure there were plenty of others I didn’t spot.
But… well, the actual plot and descriptions just dragged for me. Delightful details do not a novel make. The Jane Eyre bit – where Thursday must try to rescue her – comes so late that it feels almost like a different novel. Indeed, I did begin to wonder if these were originally the first two in the ongoing series, spliced together before publication. (Incidentally, in this universe Jane Eyre ends before the final section, and many characters note that it’s a shame Jane and Rochester don’t end up together. My views on this have been mentioned on my blog before – i.e. Rochester is a horrific prospect, and she’d be far better off without either St. John Rivers or Mr Rochester.)
So – it was a case of disappointment for me. So many wonderful ingredients – and yet such a mediocre book, in my eyes. I certainly shan’t be bothering with any of the others in the series.
But I know that The Eyre Affair has devoted fans – so, please, do launch counter arguments in the comments!