Books: The Woman Who Died A Lot
Author: Jasper Fforde
Well before Ian McEwan came up with MI5 operative Serena Frome and entangled her in a bundle of stories, Jasper Fforde had created a parallel world, the star of which was the literary detective, Thursday Next. She was a literary detective whose job involved preserving law and order in the world of literature, or Bookworld. While some may argue that it really isn’t fair to compare detective work in literary fiction with the dramatic possibilities of the comic fantasy genre, we must confess that, fond as we are of McEwan, our hearts and bookmarks belong to Thursday Next.
Thursday was introduced to readers in The Eyre Affair, which tells you the real reason there was a fire at Mr Rochester’s home in Jane Eyre. Over the next five novels, Thursday had rollicking adventures in Bookworld, sorting out plots and saving the world within and outside books.
If you haven’t read any Fforde before, rejoice because a whole new world of puns, wordplay and comic genius awaits you. If you have read Fforde before, then you’ll be happy to know that The Woman Who Died A Lot shows Fforde is as cuckoo as ever. Also, he seems to have had his fill of Bookworld. This time, he’s anchored the story firmly in Swindon and dropped hints about a new realm called DRM, or Dark Reading Matter, which is also the title of the next Thursday Next novel.
For now, though, to Swindon we go, where Thursday lives with her family. Since her last adventure left Thursday with a walking stick and many aches, Thursday has a new job: she’s a librarian. This means her deputies include a woman who dresses in library camouflage gear (pants and a jacket with bookshelves printed on them) and a man who, as a result of bomb blast, has paragraphs from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel permanently inked on his face (“at least it gave him something to read while shaving”). However, there’s more than unreturned books and library fines upsetting Thursday’s routine.
The evil Goliath Corporation wants Thursday dead and has sent an army of highly-intelligent android killers after her. Thursday’s son has got a letter in the mail informing him he’s going to kill someone in a couple of days. God has said he’s going to send a pillar of cleansing fire in order to make an example of his divine awesomeness and, despite the damage this will cause in Swindon, He is not open to negotiation. (Ultimately, it falls upon Thursday to solve the smiting problem as well.) As if all this wasn’t enough, Britain is facing a crisis: “The nation’s stupidity — usually discharged on a harmless drip feed of minor bungling — had now risen far beyond the capacity of the nation to dispose of it in a safe and sensible fashion.”
In a nutshell: there’s not a boring moment in The Woman Who Died A Lot.
This, however, doesn’t mean the novel is a breezy read, particularly if you are not familiar with Fforde’s version of the world. Even if you’re armed with the background, The Woman Who Died A Lot can be confusing at times, especially since most of the characters are themselves confused by the events. Three parallel plots run through the novel and it’s a wonder Fforde’s mind wasn’t scrambled. Clones, memory stealers, dodos, neanderthals, illegal drugs — they’re all here in Fforde’s Swindon. Take your time and don’t be shy of going back a few pages to figure out what the hell is going on. Because for all its bizarre antics, this Swindon is a wonderful place and Thursdays is a delight.