The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, and he had a long row to hoe to get it out into the world. He persisted through no fewer than 76 rejections before finally pulling together this manuscript that was accepted by a publisher.

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The novel’s central character, Thursday Next, is a detective in an alternative world (circa 1985). England has been at war with Imperial Russia in the Crimea region for over a century, the occasional time travel wormhole opens up in the countryside, and there’s a whole branch of the police force dedicated to solving literary crimes. That’s where Thursday works, and how she ends up pursuing a super-villain through the pages of Jane Eyre.

This isn’t the kind of sexy morally grey villain you’ll find in your cartoon cover romantasies, though. Acheron Hades is impervious to bullets, can walk through walls, manipulates people into killing themselves, and worse. His schtick in The Eyre Affair is stealing the original manuscripts of classic works (Martin Chuzzlewit and the aforementioned Jane Eyre), and using the technology he stole from Thursday’s uncle to pull key characters out of the story. He holds them to ransom, as readers around the world bemoan the loss of their favourites from the pages.

While all that’s going on, Thursday’s father occasionally stops time in order to visit her and ask about pivotal moments in history – he’s on the run from the Chronoguard, the cops that oversee time travel, and his wife worries that he’s having an affair with a woman a hundred years ago. There’s also an ongoing society-wide debate as to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with door-knockers stopping by to evangelise for their leading theory periodically.

So, yes, The Eyre Affair is a bit kooky – big Terry Pratchett vibes, all throughout. It’s a bit hard to follow, especially at first, though I suspect that’s more my fault than Fforde’s. Seasoned fantasy readers would surely understand the world and follow the plot no problem, but having little experience in the genre myself, I found it all a bit overwhelming.

It’s not just fantasy, though. The Eyre Affair works in elements of science-fiction, mystery, thriller, satire – even romance. It’s like Fforde took an element from each of his 76 rejected manuscripts and cooked it into one. That didn’t really help with the “hard to follow” thing. You don’t realise how much you rely on the tropes of a given genre to understand what’s going on until you read a book that throws the rules out the window.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Eyre Affair was a mixed bag for me. I liked the small details Fforde worked in, like the dodos revived from extinction to be kept as house pets and the character named ‘Jack Schitt’. I didn’t like the gratuitous gun violence and the casual fat phobia and ableism (which probably would’ve flown unchecked twenty years ago when The Eyre Affair was first published, but not so much today). I’d recommend this one to fans of Pratchett (and Douglas Adams, come to that), but tell the average non-fantasy reader that they can probably skip it if they’re short on reading time.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Eyre Affair:

  • “It’s funny, I was just reading an article about how indie authors are ruining the book industry. How about mainstream books that charge too much and they suck?” – MEA
  • “The characters have silly names, the plot is unbelievable and it’s just tedious over all. I will never believe the reviews again.” – pdh
  • “Contrary to other reviewers, this book is NOT Douglas Adams, NOT Jonathan Lethem, NOT Monty Python, NOT Stephen Hawking, NOT gripping, NOT witty, and certainly NOT Bronte. AVOID.” – Mark Malamud
  • “Look, alternate time lines and such don’t faze me; I’m a Trekkie and a Whovian, so you want to stir things up, I say, have at it. This however is just plain silly and pretentious. You still want to read it ’cause you figure you are no doubt smarter than I am? It’s entirely possible, but do your bank account a favor and check it out of the library.” – Peach Blossom Lane