In the alternate universe of The Eyre Affair, classic art and literature are Serious Business. Gangs of Raphaelites brawl in the street with their Surrealist arch-nemeses, Shakespeare performances are met with the same level of audience participation and enthusiasm as a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the Literary Detectives exist as a special branch of law enforcement to handle all crimes relating to books. Our heroine Thursday Next is one such detective.
However, this alternate universe is hardly a book-lover’s paradise. Nominally set in the 1980s, England and Imperial Russia have been at war over the Crimea for nearly 150 years. Thursday is herself a shell-shocked veteran, gaining accolades for her heroism but losing her brother in a disastrous battle that basically replayed the Charge of the Light Brigade, but with tanks. A monolithic company, the Goliath Corporation, exerts tremendous influence over the media and economy of the UK, essentially controlling the government. Goliath’s military-industrial complex is one of the key factors in prolonging the Crimean War.
More fantastically, in this universe time travel exists and is policed by the mysterious ChronoGuard. Many of the differences between the world of Thursday Next and our universe can be chalked up to time-jumping revisionists trying to bend the arc of history in favor of their respective factions. Thursday’s own father is a rogue ChronoGuard agent, and he occasionally pops in and out of the narrative (and the time stream) to give his daughter a hand when things get particularly dicey.
Which is fortunate, because things get dicey fast. Thursday’s mad scientist uncle has just invented the Prose Portal, which allows someone to physically enter a book, interact with the characters, and make changes to the story. These changes are local to the copy used, but if the changes were to be made to a book’s original manuscript, then the entirety of the book’s existence would be altered.
Thursday is hot on the trail of Acheron Hades, a sadistic criminal mastermind with mysterious powers including nigh-invulnerability and mind-control. And Hades has his eye on both the Prose Portal and a couple of original manuscripts, making the concept of character assassination very literal. Meanwhile, the sinister Goliath Corporation is watching events unfold with interest…
I quite enjoyed this book. It wasn’t quite what I expected it to be, but I was pleasantly surprised. I do feel like I missed some of the references and allusions in the story by not being well-versed (no pun intended) in classics literature. That being said, the mystery is accessible even with only cursory knowledge of the titans of English lit, and I really liked the main character. Like most stories with time travel, it works best when you don’t think about the mechanics of it all and just enjoy the ride. It actually reminded me a lot of Terry Pratchett, one of my all-time favorite authors, in that it used irreverence and fantasy to speak to larger social issues without becoming bogged down. The plot moves quickly, the main character is compellingly flawed without being insufferable, and the wit and novelty of the premise sustain the book despite the inherent logical faults that appear in a narrative combining traveling through time and jumping into classic literature.
In The Eyre Affair the obsession with the classics, while on the surface a point of charm and amusement, is actually a symptom of the rot at the heart of society in the world of Thursday Next. Because of censorship, the government and the Goliath Corporation has stifled modern creative impulses. The works of older authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Bronte are held in such esteem because the current landscape is culturally bankrupt. However, I don’t think Fforde is trying to make a metatextual case that old art is good, and modernity is inherently bad. One of the key plot points involves revising the ending of a beloved classic, to its benefit, and the citizens of the alternate universe are certainly no happier or more enlightened for all that arguments over Shakespearean authorship are standard watercooler gossip.
I recommend this book to anyone who cares deeply about books (which is likely anyone reading this review) and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.