Any avid peruser of the fiction shelves of second-hand bookshops very quickly realises by the sheer frequency with which certain titles recur that these have the widest readership and the most enduring popularity. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair is one such novel (the sequel, Lost in a Good Book, was equally well received). No sooner is it removed from the shelves of some dusty private retailer or charity shop than another is handed in to replace it, lining the pockets of our dwindling band of independent booksellers or fighting the good fight against spina bifida. In this sense, Fforde’s crowd-pleaser is an excellent choice for World Book Night, as long as we discount the only mildly implausible possibility that everyone has read it already. Everybody, that is, except the reviewer, who may be struggling a little to see what all the fuss is about.
Treading a similar path of pun-laden, aggressively English whimsy to that of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, the novelalmost defies description. A picaresque adventure of time-travel, vampires, corporate evil, Welsh nationalism and the Victorian novel, The Eyre Affair somehow manages to be richly imaginative and underwhelming in equal measure. Forde presents an alternate 1985 where books and literature have achieved the sort of totemic societal importance that well-meaning literary worthies would love to foster – roving bands of Baconians and Marlovians fight over who the real Shakespeare was; Dickens is quoted chapter and verse, while the kidnap of the titular character leads to mass public outcry and the involvement of the Prime Minister. (David Cameron’s recent decision to figuratively bash Hillary Mantel over the head reveals our own Britain to be a very sad, inverted mirror image of Forde’s Technicolor dreamscape).
Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective entrusted by the English police state (still fighting the Crimean war and engaging in border skirmishes with independent, Leninist Wales) with the all-important task of rooting out forgeries of books and tracking down missing original copies. Thursday spends the novel clashing with Acheron Hades, a superbly witty villain of the moustache-twirling, Count Fosco variety, after he commandeers a portal to fictional worlds in order to kidnap and ransom characters from England’s most beloved literary classics. Capers and hijinks abound with monotonous regularity as one harem-scarem exploit follows another. Among the highlights are a hilarious production of Richard III where the audience is so familiar with the text that some assume all the roles in the play and others interact with the text a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, dodos regenerated by home cloning kits, and surrealist riots to celebrate the legalisation of neo-surrealism.
There comes a point, however, when Fforde’s undoubted inventiveness crosses the threshold into hyperactive gimmickry that cannot disguise the thinness of the conceit. In a novel like this, it is perhaps churlish to complain about character development, but the interchangeable nature of Thursday’s cardboard love interests, partners and antagonists (the excellent Hades excepting) stands in sharp contrast to the inspired, fantastic fictional universe they inhabit. The mechanics of the plot don’t so much creak as jitterbug crazily, fuelled by a breezy, agreeable and relentless whimsy that becomes tiring. That said, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy obsessives, Pratchett fanatics and the British book-buying public obviously seem to love it, so what do I know?