Thursday Next: Book I
For several years my friend Martin has been telling me that I had to read this book. I don’t know why I resisted for so long: stubbornness, probably, more than anything else. But recently another friend, Alex, completely independently recommended the same thing. And so, finding myself once again in an airport lounge with nothing to do, I decided it was time to give Thursday Next a go. My reaction began with wariness, progressed into bafflement and eventually shuffled rather awkwardly into acknowledgement that this was rather good.
Set in an alternate-universe 1985, this introduces us to an England where the Crimean War is still going on after a hundred and thirty years. Wales is a fiercely independent socialist republic, with tense diplomatic relations with England and a border simmering with unrest. Genetic developments have led to the reversion of extinction and the potential for ever more exotic pets. Dodos are particularly popular. And people are passionate about books.
When I say ‘passionate’, I don’t mean in the way that you or I are passionate. Even about the Lymond Chronicles. I mean ‘passionate’ in the sense that public riots are kicked off by bands of Marlovians and Baconians fighting in the streets over who actually wrote Shakespeare. The most devoted fans change their names by deed poll to match their favourite author’s, and so there are mass John Milton conventions where everyone, male and female, turns up in doublet and hose. And one of the secret services is devoted to protecting literature. In a world where Gad’s Hill is a pilgrimage site and the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is surrounded by top security, that’s partly a case of protecting the physical integrity of books. But it’s also about protecting their literary integrity. For this is a world where the boundaries between literature and reality are fluid; and, when someone with evil intentions gets into the manuscript of a classic novel, there’s no telling what chaos they might cause…
Thursday Next, our no-nonsense heroine, is an appealing cross between book-geek and hard-boiled detective. (If you’re now thinking, ‘Why is she called Thursday Next?’ this may not be the book for you. Fforde revels in odd names: Milon de Floss, for example. Leigh Delamare, by contrast, is a perfectly real name, although that particular in-joke will be lost on anyone who isn’t familiar with the M4. Anyway.) Down-to-earth and capable, Thursday is haunted by a tragic tour of service in the Crimea and now works in the cosy, scholarly environment of the Special Operations LiteraTec offices in London. Here she polices books and protects the country’s literary heritage, while deftly fending off her mother’s solicitous questions about marriage.
But she is dragged out of her routine when her charismatic, dangerous former professor Acheron Hades registers on the Spec Ops’ radar: a criminal so ambitious that he plots to invade novels and take characters hostage until his dastardly demands are met. Determined to stop him at all costs, Thursday decides that she needs a change of scene and moves back from London, with her pet dodo Pickwick, to her native Swindon. Here, among the emotional wreckage of her past, she plots how to run Hades to ground. But Acheron isn’t the only person threatening her peace of mind. Her erratically brilliant uncle Mycroft has invented a machine that allows people to enter books and poems. Her renegade time-travelling father is popping up with strange questions. And her return has brought her into painfully close proximity with her former boyfriend (and her mother’s ideal future son-in-law), the writer Landen Parke-Laine.
Fforde had me at ‘dodos’ to be honest (long story), but he also really impressed me with his ability to create a world which is simultaneously so familiar and so incredibly strange. He doesn’t do it by setting out all the differences on a tray, but by making casual throwaway comments that leave you scrabbling to rearrange your mental furniture. His playful treatment of classic novels is also very smart: even when negotiating the text of Jane Eyre, Thursday and her partner-in-crime Rochester must ensure that the ‘front-line’ text is never disrupted, so that the book itself can carry on as usual. It’s classic, off-the-wall British humour. Acheron Hades makes a fabulously corrupt villain (‘Shall we get to work? I haven’t committed a singularly debauched act for almost an hour.’) And I’m rather touched, as a West Country girl, that Swindon is getting some literary love. Incidentally, it was only while doing research for this post that I’ve discovered Swindon is in fact home to the Bodleian Library’s book repository: 153 miles of bookshelves, according to Wikipedia. Is that why Fforde was inspired to give it such literary credentials, I wonder?
All this cleverness does have a slight downside: reading the book for the first time feels rather like being buried under a sparkling heap of literary confetti. There’s just so much to absorb… but it is just the first in a series, and I’m certainly going to be carrying on with more of the books. Moreover, this is one of the rare novels that gets better the more you think about it. (Spoilers in the rest of the paragraph.) For example, a couple of days after I finished it I was doing my chores around the house and suddenly had a eureka moment, when I realised that the romantic subplot actually mirrors Jane Eyre. Thursday’s uncertain relationship with Landen; her comradely affection for the nice, workmanlike Bowden, who offers her the chance to come with him to work abroad (in Ohio, rather than India, but you get the point); the wedding in the final act, which is disrupted by news of a prior marriage… There aren’t quite madwomen in the attic, but I still had a little flush of satisfaction when I figured it out.
If you enjoy Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman then you should give this a go; but Fforde’s Thursday Next novels have a large enough following that they don’t need to be described by reference to other authors. They’re practically a cult in their own right: a winning blend of whimsy, sci-fi and film noir. I’m a bit late to the party, and I wasn’t won over immediately, but this book has a persistent, pervasive charm that has continued to work its magic on me long after I finished it. I’m definitely going to be continuing to the sequel: Lost in a Good Book.