by Jasper Fforde
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0340825979
Date: 26 July, 2004 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Every summer for the last three years we've been entertained by a new instalment of Jasper Fforde's bright and fantastically original Thursday Next novels. The Eyre Affair, the first in the series, introduced something so off-the-wall and endearing that it became an instant hit with reader's on both sides of the Atlantic.
These are novels that are extraordinarily difficult to categorize – the basic premise involves Thursday Next, a literary detective battling against villains who wish to destroy literature. However, when you factor in the richly insane alternative nineteen eighties middle England setting, Fforde enters virgin territory for genre novels. There are plot strands involving time travel, genetic engineering, horror, creatures of the night, ghosts, fictional characters who have no business being outside their natural habitat and lord knows what else. That the result of so eclectic a mix of themes and ideas is not a confused mish-mash, but rather a brilliantly entertaining bit of jolly silly fun is a testament to the huge skill and fertile imagination of this author, who, I am told on good authority, had some trouble getting the first of these novels published.
And so we come to Something Rotten – after two years, Thursday returns from the book world (which she has been in charge of policing) to the real one (which, in Fforde's work is no less far fetched!), intent on reversing the eradication of her husband, killed at the age of two by agents of the huge corporate monster, Goliath. This personal mission is by no means an easy one – with the temporal conundrums involved, Thursday is the only person who remembers ever being married to Langdon – her mother and brother can only take her word for it!
Swindon has changed a little whilst Thursday has been away – indeed the political landscape of the entire country is now threatened by one Yorrick Kaine, a sly and dangerous politician well on his way to becoming sole dictator of Britain. Even the ageing President-For-life, George Formby, cannot counter Kaine's rising popularity, especially when bolstered by his impressive appearance on programmes such as "Evade the Questiontime". Elsewhere, news comes to Thursday that the Goliath Corporation, her ultimate nemesis, is rather sorry for all the bad things it's done to people over the years and it has now set up a department to handle official apologies, part of its restructuring from commercial juggernaut to official religion. Meanwhile, there is religious activity all over, with the resurrection of a number of dead saints, one of whom, St Zvlkx – a drunk and a gambler not noted for his personal hygiene, has predicted that Swindon will go on to win this years croquet Superhoop. All these things effect Thursday intimately, and she must juggle them all along with her two year old Friday's feeding times and the fact that she has Hamlet as a house guest – a fact complicated by the anti-Danish propaganda being put out by Kaine.
As ever, Fforde's novel is thick with ingenious concepts and ideas – I begin to wonder if this wonderful author has access to some inexhaustible source of brilliance – perhaps he makes use of some invention of Mycroft Next! And none of Fforde's sheer cleverness is ever at the expense of his sense of fun – with it's Dramatis Personae on the first few pages, Something Rotten has you laughing before you even begin reading the narrative! Indeed it is notable how Fforde subverts and inverts his ideas again and again, always mining them for more – he uses Hamlet to comment on the real world – "If the real world were a book," he says, "it would never find a publisher. Over-long, detailed to the point of distraction – and ultimately without a major resolution."
Like all the great literary satirists, Jasper Fforde magnifies the ridiculous, turning the world on its head. Less full of narrative tricks than The Well of Lost Plots, though no less imaginative and entertaining , Something Rotten harks back once more to the influences of Lewis Carroll and Dickens (the legal challenges during the croquet game are a homage to both these literary giants) whilst at the same time forging ahead into territory that can from this point on, only ever be thought of as Ffordian or perhaps Nextian. My only selfish worry with these works is that Jasper might one day run out of steam or, God help us all, ideas! On this form though, all looks well and Thursday is due back next summer in The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco. I can't wait!!!