This was entirely down to an eye-catching cover and a display in a bookshop.
Waiting for the Eurostar train to France a few years ago, I nipped into the branch of Foyle’s at St Pancras International Station. As I wouldn’t go on holiday without a book, I must have already had something with me, but it’s hard to resist a bookshop, especially Foyle’s (their old store on Charing Cross Road was one of my favourite places to hang out if I had time to kill on a visit to London, and the new one is beautiful and light and welcoming).
Drifting round the Fantasy Section, one garish cover grabbed my attention – The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I picked it up, read the blurb, though it sounded interesting, bought it. And read the whole thing in a few days, then went looking for the next in the series (when we got home, obviously – no point buying a French edition).
Usually at this point in these “How I Got Into….” posts, having described the initial trigger I’ll say something about whatever it was that I Got Into. And although I’ve had Jasper Fforde on the list of provisional topics for a while (what, you thought I just sat down on a Friday evening and pulled it out of thin air?), it’s this bit that’s been putting me off – how to describe in a couple of short paragraphs the astonishing and bamboozling world(s) he creates.
So I’m going to cheat. Here’s an extract from the Penguin Readers Guide to The Eyre Affair:
Masterpiece Theatre meets James Bond in The Eyre Affair, the first novel in Jasper Fforde’s cheeky sleuth series featuring a book-loving, gun-toting, wit-slinging heroine named Thursday Next. In Thursday’s world, an alternate version of 1985 London, literature rules popular culture—audiences enact and participate in Richard III for Friday-night fun, thousands of visitors make literary pilgrimages to gawk at original manuscripts, and missionaries travel door-to-door heralding Francis Bacon as the true Bard.
And here’s the backcover blurb that first caught my attention:
There is another 1985, somewhere in the could-have-been, where Thursday Next is a literary detective without equal, fear, or boyfriend. Thursday is on the trail of the villainous Acheron Hades who has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre herself has been plucked from the novel of the same name, and Thursday must find a way into the book to repair the damage.
She also has to find time to halt the Crimean conflict, persuade the man she loves to marry her, rescue her aunt from inside a Wordsworth poem and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Aided and abetted by a cast of characters that includes her time-travelling father, Jack Schitt of the all-powerful Goliath Corporation, a pet dodo named Pickwick and Edward Rochester himself, Thursday embarks on an adventure that will take your breath away.So what have we got? An alternate universe that’s recognisably Britain, characters kidnapped from inside novels, Richard III played in a Rocky Horror-style audience participation performance, a literary detective (i.e. a detective specialising in crimes involving literature), un-extincted cloned dodos….what’s not to like?
From The Eyre Affair I quickly moved through the other Thursday Next books (another plug for Wollaton Public Library, my main source), which become increasingly bizarre and, for want of a better word, meta. Having started with Thursday Next (who already lives in an alternate universe, remember) entering novels and meeting Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester (for a novel that exists in our world as well as Thursday’s), the later books reveal the world beyond this, where the characters from the novels actually live (Miss Havisham from Great Expectations becomes Thursday’s mentor in this other world). Here the creation of books themselves is managed, and then Thursday goes even further into the fictional worlds within that world. By the end of the series I confess I was completely lost (oh, and there’s time travel thrown in occasionally too), but I stuck with it through a fascination with the writing and the labyrinthine stories.
There is also the semi-related Nursery Crime series (investigating crimes within the world of nursery rhymes and fairy stories – who pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall?), and an intriguing science fiction story Shades of Grey (nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey) for which we’re still impatiently waiting the sequel. And the children’s Dragonslayer series which I haven’t read yet.
I know not everyone likes Jasper Fforde’s writing – he gets accused of being too “clever clever” and some are even unaccountably irritated by his humorous punning character names (such as Millon Da Floss and Braxton Hicks to name two). But it’s a style I like – he loves his subject and his world(s) and enjoys a good pun.
And he has a great website, and posts lovely pictures of Wales and interesting ceilings on Instagram.
I’ve checked the Amazon sites in the UK and the USA, and on both you can read at least the first few pages of The Eyre Affair using the “Look Inside” feature, which will give you a taste of what I found in the railway station on the way to France. I hope you enjoy.