The place is England and the year is 1985, but it's not any version of 1985 that you or I would recognize. Sure, some aspects of everyday life are familiar enough -- people drive Datsuns and watch television, for example. But microchips haven't been invented, so there are no computers, and people make long trips by dirigible rather than jet plane. Time travel, on the other hand, is possible, although highly regulated. The Russian Revolution never happened, but for 131 years Britain and Czarist Russia have been fighting the Crimean War, a conflict in which long, relatively inactive periods are punctuated by episodes of horrendous carnage.
Oh, and art and literature are popular -- very popular. In fact, they share about the same cultural import that movies, professional sports and pop music -- combined -- do in our world. Hardcore fans change their names to John Milton or go around dressed like Shakespeare, and gangs of surrealists get into lethal rumbles with French impressionists.
This is the 1985 inhabited by Thursday Next, intrepid Special Operative in literary detection, veteran of a particularly bloody Crimean campaign (where she lost a brother) and the kind of tough, self-reliant heroine that fans of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski series will recognize even if Welsh author Jasper Fforde's alternate history high jinks set their heads spinning. And since Fforde drops a sly hint that "The Eyre Affair" is intended to launch a new series, readers who take a liking to Thursday will no doubt find more where that came from.
Thursday's job is to track down stolen original manuscripts and spot forgeries, but in "The Eyre Affair" she gets recruited by another department in SpecOps, which is trying to capture the world's Third Most Wanted criminal, Acheron Hades. It turns out Thursday is one of the few people able to resist the hypnotic effect of Hades' infernally persuasive voice. Hades steals a device that allows people to enter into literary works, and he begins kidnapping characters from great novels, starting with a minor figure from "Martin Chuzzlewit" and moving on to Jane Eyre.
There's a bit of back story about Thursday's dead brother, her burgeoning pacificism and a lost love she encounters when she transfers back to her hometown, Swindon, but "The Eyre Affair" is mostly a collection of jokes, conceits and puzzles. It's smart, frisky and sheer catnip for former English majors, a cross between Douglas Adams' "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and Jonathan Lethem's "Gun, With Occasional Music," with a big chunk of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" tossed in.
And some of the jokes are clever indeed. There's an ongoing production of "Richard III" done with boisterous audience participation à la "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" -- surprisingly plausible and, if you know your theatrical history, not that far off from the spirit of the original performances. Then there's Thursday's father, a former colonel in the ChronoGuard gone rogue, who travels back and forth in time, tweaking history in "a one-man war against the bureaucrats within the Office of Temporal Stability." He stops by to visit Thursday on a trip back to the 10th millennium where he plans to introduce a fruit genetically engineered in 2055. As soon as he vanishes again, Thursday instantly recognizes the formerly unfamiliar "yellow curved thing" as a banana. Her father decides to name it after the engineer who sequenced the plant, Anna Bannon -- a nod to Ann Bannon, the legendary author of 1950s lesbian pulp novels.
It's not just the past that's in a state of constant revision in "The Eyre Affair"; when Hades kidnaps Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë's original manuscript, all editions of the novel suddenly peter out about a third of the way through -- it can't go on without its first-person narrator. By the time Thursday manages to thwart Hades' evil scheme with the help of no less than Mr. Rochester himself, the novel will have a new and much more satisfying ending (the one, in fact, that it has in our world). I imagine that "The Eyre Affair" began as a riff on that seminal dream of every passionate reader, the desire to step into the universe of a favorite book, but given Fforde's prodigious powers of invention, where Thursday's further adventures will take her is anybody's guess.