Cannonball Read 5, Book 104: The Woman Who Died A Lot by Jasper Fforde



It was my dear friend Jabberbookie who turned me on to Thursday Next. I remember her describing it to me and thinking “that sounds just a shade too kooky for me”. But I went with it and The Eyre Affair is an absolute marvel. It’s a recurring theme on this blog of “oh, it didn’t really sound like it was my thing but I gave it a try and it changed my life et cetera et cetera” and the first four novels in this series absolutely come under that heading. But I feel the series peaked with the Hamlet crossover brilliance of Something Rotten and it’s been on a downward slope ever since. The previous entrant, One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing was pretty bad, but for some reason, I found myself hoping that this cumbersomely titled seventh entry into the Thursday Next canon would swing it back around. Alas, it was not to be (see what I did there?).

One problem I have is Fforde has taken Next in a direction no true fan would want her to go. When we meet her in book one, she’s fearless and vivacious and gung-ho about her role as a Literary Detective. For some reason, Fforde has aged her and made her somewhat infirm, both physically and emotionally. Imagine if James Bond had been on a Zimmer Frame by his seventh book, and fretting about his wife and kids. A terrible idea, no? And yet, that’s where we are. He’s taken an awesome creation and absolutely hobbled her, for reasons known only to himself. So before we even start, this book needs to really go some to make me love it.

Well, guess what? Doesn’t happen. I really thought this was an absolute mess. There’s SO MUCH GOING ON, for starters. There’s about eleven different strands of the plot all vying to be the main story, all without any success. Not only is Fforde trying to shoehorn in a boatload of storylines, he’s really trying to draw the reader in to his alternate universe. The level of detail Fforde is now going into borders on the psychotic and makes for a punishing read, rather than a jolly and fun one, which it feels like he’s aiming for. Weirdly, this incredible attention to detail sits uneasily alongside some really clumsy moments (not least the conclusion of the Aornis Hades subplot), which just makes the whole thing feel lumpen and unwieldy.

How much you enjoy this book really hinges on how you take the following sentence. Unable to continue as literary detective, Next lands the role of Swindon’s chief Librarian. In Fforde’s world, this is the equivalent of being head of MI5 and American Express at the same time and thus is a lot of work. This means she has an array of personal assistants. And so: “This is Geraldine,” said Duffy. ‘The assistant’s assistant to the assistant personal assistant of my own personal assistant’s assistant”. If you’re wide eyed and agog with admiration at how much of a wordsmith genius he is, then by all means have at it with this book. If, like me, you’re rolling your eyes half way through the sentence and thinking “oh for heavens sakes”, then just read the first four awesome books, pretend Thursday dies at the end of book four and leave it there.

It’s never fun when a series of books you love goes off a literary cliff, and the steep decline in quality of the Thursday Next books aggrieves me hugely. The beginning of the series flow with the effortless brilliance of a visionary genius. The last two read like the desperate over-elaboration of the firmly mediocre. There will, we are told, be an eighth book, Dark Reading Matter. And so there might be. For me, the ride has now come to a complete stop and so it’s time to get off. Such a shame.