Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
THE eighth book in a series so convoluted that you would need a mind like a corkscrew to make it through without undue mental strain, The Woman Who Died A Lot is the latest in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. A blend of alternate history, comic fantasy, literary in-jokes and some truly terrible puns, Fforde’s series is one of the most clever, tongue-in-cheek works of fiction to be published in the last decade.
Fforde himself is only slightly less unusual than his series. Born in 1961, he is a Londoner who, before being published, spent his early working life as a focus-puller on popular films such as GoldenEye, and eventually — after what must be some sort of world-record — having his manuscript rejected 76 times, managed to have the first Thursday Next book, The Eyre Affair, published in 2001. It was The Eyre Affair that introduced readers to Thursday Next, a “literary detective” whose job involved policing the world of literature: the Bookworld.
Fforde lets the joys of the Bookworld run rampant through his novels, writing his own twists and explanations about mysterious literary snafus (The Eyre Affair, for example, clarifies how and why Mr Rochester’s house suffered a fire in Jane Eyre). In each of the novels, Thursday ran herself ragged between her hometown of Swindon and the metafictional Bookworld, preserving literature and the world against the monolithic, megalomaniacal Goliath Corporation, the goal of which (to take over the world, one product and hostile takeover at a time) is a parody of today’s corporate entities.
If you haven’t read the first six novels in the series, The Woman Who Died A Lot might involve some heavy lifting. Fforde jumps right into the action, and there is a lot of it: Thursday has been forcible “semi-retired”; her family is more dysfunctional than normal, with son Fridays facing career issues (i.e. the time-travelling erasure of his career); brainiac daughter Tuesday is alternately encouraging and fending off an unwanted suitor from school while trying to perfect a defensive shield against an angry God’s promise to wipe Swindon off the face of the planet; and imaginary Jenny, who doesn’t exist (more on that later).
Because this wouldn’t really be a Fforde novel without at least half a dozen plotlines, it doesn’t stop there. The Goliath Corporation (“we’re not evil, just misunderstood” should be their corporate logo) wants Thursday dead, and frustrated by its many failed attempts to eliminate her, has now brought an army of android assassins into play. Friday has — in addition to having his career retroactively wiped out — received a message saying that he will be responsible for killing someone in a few days.
Last, but certainly not least, Britain is facing a serious political crisis, described as the result of truly awful politicians who have managed to function with some competence: “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 keeping with this theme of generalised idiocy, Fforde also tosses a group of Enid Blyton fundamentalists who are up in arms (literally) about maintaining the purity of their (rather racist) idol into the mix.
Got that? Good. And if you haven’t, you most likely aren’t alone. Even if you have read Fforde’s preceding novels, The Woman Who Died A Lot can leave you boggled with distressing frequency, especially since most of Fforde’s characters are themselves confused by the events, and not shy about letting you know that. Trying to keep track of the plotlines is like trying to identify each individual ovum in a plate of scrambled eggs.
Clones and memory-stealers intersect with dodos and Neanderthals. The pacing for Fforde’s book is hectic to say the least: the start of the novel feels a bit rushed as we’re plunged into the midst of multiple plots and subplots. There are also several minor characters who start taking on increased importance, but we don’t really have time to come to terms with them. Trying to remember who they are and what they’ve done in the past novels is time-consuming, so in an odd sort of way, the book feels both hurried and unnecessarily extended at the same time. At times, readers may want to put down The Woman Who Died A Lot to rifle through Fforde’s past novels, because it’s entirely too easy to get swept up in the tempo of this novel and put it down a few pages later only to discover that you don’t really remember what had happened in First Among Sequels or why Pickwick the dodo actually matters. It’s a little bit like only being able to view a tapestry through either a microscope or a pair of binoculars — you can see threads or the outline, but context and detail are much more difficult to sense.
Towards the middle though, the tapestry starts making more sense. There is devilishly tricky plotting and brilliant moments of writing that could easily be translated into a Monty Python sketch (see the “nuns with guns” bit for more clarity). This is how Fforde manages to keep you invested in his story — even though the novel has plenty of moments that seem as though it’s the literary equivalent of Dr Moreau’s worst moments, the individual bits win out. For example, how many other books can you think of that would have Mexican stand-offs with threats like: “Make a wrong move and you’ll have more holes in you than a lump of Emmenthal”?
The plot structure of The Woman Who Died A Lot is much more concentrated than Fforde’s other books set in Swindon and the Bookworld, which is both good and a little disappointing. Half the pleasure of his past novels was rooted in the meandering that we as readers could do through an extraordinarily well-conceived, tongue-in-cheek piece of world-building. The humour and the comedy in the past novels was less deliberate than it is here, and perhaps my own prejudices are to fault here, but the lack of interface with the Bookworld really hampers the novel. The Bookworld is, after all, the stage for the cast of WutheringHeights to attend anger management classes, and where Hamlet goes through identity crises due to too many interpretations of his character by too many scholars.
Fforde’s earlier novels used to be defined by literature — anyone who has ever fallen in love with a book would find something to which s/he could relate. The wry twists of a “Footnoterphone”, through which characters communicated secretly via footnotes, or the reinterpretation of Miss Havisham as the literary equivalent of a Black Ops Marine — these have given way to vague science-fiction premises that focus almost too much on the technicalities of time travel and identity theft. Maybe Fforde is trying a little too hard to reinvent himself with The Woman Who Died A Lot. Maybe it’s all a giant set-up for the next novel in the series. Either way, how can you resist something that riffs on physics with the idea of “Dark Reading Matter”?
The Woman Who Died A Lot
By Jasper Fforde
Hodder & Stoughton
400pp. Price not listed