The Eyre Affair is a wonderful literary concoction. Creating a world where literature is king, Jasper Fforde has a masterful sense of style and setting that hasn't been equaled in a while. It has everything from cloned dodos to time travelers to stories within a story. Only a sense of illogic about the history of the world in which Fforde writes mars an otherwise excellent novel.
Literary detective Thursday Next is a “detective without equal, fear, or boyfriend.” For one thing, she’s the only person who has stood up to master villain Acheron Hades and lived to tell the tale. She’s brave and smart, a wonderful combination that is rare in Spec-Ops. After a confrontation where everybody believes Hades is dead, Thursday is visited by her future self and told to take the Literary Detective position in her hometown of Swindon. The original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit has been stolen and it disappeared with Hades’ apparent death. But things aren’t quite what they seem. Now characters from famous novels are being kidnapped by a fiendish machine created by Next’s uncle, and then held for ransom. This includes Jane Eyre herself. It's up to Next to save the day again.
Fforde's imagination is breathtaking. While the characters are fairly mundane (except for Next), the world Fforde has created is extremely novel and interesting. Next is a wonderful protagonist, full of intriguing idiosyncrasies, a biting sense of humor, intelligence and street smarts. The book is mostly told in first person from her point of view, though there are some passages in third-person, almost as if they were told to her later. This makes an effective mix as the reader gets to hear about events that happen away from Next, but almost the entire book is colored with Next's unique interpretation of things.
But, as I said, this is not really a book about character. This is a book about images, ideas, and style, and this is where Fforde excels. He has truly come up with an interesting world to play in. Literature is almost everything, and the arts are first and foremost (except for wars, of course). Baconians go door to door to try and convince people that Francis Bacon wrote the plays that are credited to William Shakespeare. Surrealists are condemned, but then later made legal. When this happens, anti-Surrealists riot. There are kiosks at the blimp stations (blimps are the main form of air travel in this world) that give you snippets of Shakespeare. Next plays a five-minute snippet of "Richard III" while she's waiting for her flight. Imagine a performance of "Richard III" that plays every weekend for fifteen years, where the audience members are the actors and there is a form of audience participation very familiar to Rocky Horror Picture Show fans.
Most impressive of all, a machine is created that will allow people to enter a novel or a poem. If this happens in the original manuscript and things are changed, the changes are reflected in every copy of the book in existence. If it happens in just a copy, then other copies are unaffected. You can interact with characters in the novel, and if those characters are not "on-screen" in the novel, you can do anything you want. Since Jane Eyre is told in first-person, Next has to avoid her when she's in the novel. But she can interact with Rochester as much as she wants, as long as Rochester is not interacting with Jane. It's a fascinating concept and Fforde presents it all very well.
The world is different from ours in many other ways, too. The Crimean War between Britain and Tsarist Russia has been going on for 150 years with no end in sight (though there have been negotiations). It is implied that the French Revolution is fairly recent as well. The only fault in this world, and it really is minor considering how illogical the world is anyway, is that some of the history doesn't fit together. If the Crimean War is still going on and the French Revolution is recent, there is no way there should have been a big war with a Nazi Germany. The conditions that created Nazi Germany would probably not have existed in this type of world. Thankfully, this is just mentioned in passing before Fforde continues with his narrative.
I loved everything about this book, though. I laughed at some of the absurdities (like the Baconians and the ongoing debate about Shakespeare's plays, which gets "solved" in a unique way that avoids treading on any of the real theories that are out there). The characters are just good enough to drive the narrative forward and present this wonderful world that Fforde has created. They do what they have to do. Fforde's writing is marvelous and his use of language is really impressive. When he writes scenes that take place in famous works of literature, they don't feel out of place. He's succeeded in writing a literary novel that doesn't necessarily take itself too seriously. He has fun, and so will you.