For September, Book Club chose a book that technically falls into a sci-fi genre, but could more aptly be described as sci-fi for English majors: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.
The first novel in Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series, The Eyre Affair sets the stage for a different sort of England than we know – closer to a police state, with some giant, shady corporation underwriting much of the government’s budget. Wales is its own nation, and in this book’s version of 1985, England has been at war with Russia for more than 100 years now.
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, though, it’s England’s love of literature. And that’s why in this England, there’s a division of their Intelligence agency dedicated to literary theft. The usual scope of the work is limited to forgeries and false submissions (and you’ll love the ongoing argument throughout the book on whether or not William Shakespeare wrote all his works, including a cameo by a character straight out of the Jehovah’s Witness handbook who unluckily knocks on our heroine’s door to spread the word about the real author of Shakespeare’s works). But the works takes an interesting turn for Special Operative Thursday Next – who’s father works in another Intelligence division dedicated to time travel, making her name all the more chuckle-worthy – when the original manuscript for Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen.
At first the crime appears to be a well-executed burglary, and the division begins its routine checking of suspects, checking for any ransom notes or attempts to auction the manuscript to the highest bidder. Very soon, though, Thursday finds herself “promoted” to a much higher security clearance level, and in pursuit of a former college professor who’s turned out to be so evil, the lead investigator on the case won’t even say his name aloud for fear of giving him more power (sound familiar, all you J.K. Rowling fans?). As Thursday was immune to his charms years ago, there’s the hope that she might help the government catch this criminal before he seriously alters the manuscript…and therefore changing the course of every edition printed after, meaning tons of irate calls to the Literary Division from readers wondering what happened to their favorite character.
It turns out monitoring for a terroristic activity is pretty universal – a team of readers scoured their copies of Chuzzlewit, looking for any hints of something untoward happening to the characters contained therein.
Meanwhile, readers are introduced to the idea that the world of books and the world of mortals are kept apart by a pretty fuzzy border, and crossing from one to the other can happen at unexpected times. Thursday knows this first-hand, after stumbling into Jane Eyre while visiting a house where the Brontes grew up. She meets Mr. Rochester, and strikes up an unusual friendship that transcends borders. When she’s wounded in a gun battle to save the Chuzzlewit manuscript, it’s good old E.F.R. who binds her wound until the ambulance arrives. It’s a friendship that proves useful when the original manuscript for Jane Eyre is stolen and the heroine kidnapped from the pages of the book.
As Thursday tries to solve these crimes, we learn of her service in the long-running war, loves and losses endured throughout her service, and how her eccentric family raised her to ultimately be the one person who could save Jane Eyre from two unfortunate endings (yes, two. Read the book to find out more.) We also are treated to a scene where Richard III is acted to an audience more likely to be found at a Rocky Horror Picture Show.
While our villain meets an end that seems all-too-satisfying, the end is clearly only the beginning for this intriguing series. And best of all, the reader doesn’t have to be an English major to understand the books and their characters. The writing style was engaging but not patronizing, and he pace of the storytelling had me turning the pages long after I should’ve turned out the light and gone to sleep at night. I’ll definitely be looking for another cleverly-titled book in the series (“The Big Over-Easy,” anyone?) when I’m in the mood for a witty and engaging read.