First Among Sequels
by Jasper Fforde
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780340835753
Date: 05 July 2007 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The latest installment in the considerable adventures of Thursday Next - unmissable fun from the one and only Jasper Fforde, a writer whose imagination knows no bounds and whose talent for expressing it is just as boundless.
Highly recommended... but read the other books in the series first!
July in particular has been my favourite month over the last few years and not just because it means summer is finally here or that it happens to be the month of my birthday – rather it's because it has traditionally been the month that a new Jasper Fforde novel comes out and that is most definitely cause for celebration.
That Fforde is able to keep up such a regular and prolific output is impressive enough – that he consistently (so far at least) manages to come up with the goods time after time is nothing short of miraculous. Over seven novels Fforde has established himself as a reader's writer – a concept which may sound odd if you haven't read his stuff. If you have, you'll know exactly what I mean, for Fforde has a sincere and deep love of story and of the traditional medium for its conveyance – for the sake of argument, let's call them books! He understands what drives a true bibliophile – not only the mere words on the page and the imaginings they create in our minds, but the very process behind their invention, the methods of their perception and even pages themselves, the textures of the paper, the smell of the binding, indeed all the tactile experience that is part of reading a book.
To convey this literary obsession, Fforde has created absurd fictional worlds that are as vivid and enduring and as easily playful as anything old Lewis Carroll ever came up with. In his debut work The Eyre Affair, Fforde invented a kind of alternative England where the main threat in the novel was the possibility of the antagonist finding his way into Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and irrevocably changing the ending. Henceforth anyone subsequently reading the novel would only be able to experience the altered version. This is such a bizarre and startlingly original notion that The Eyre Affair quite rightly became a huge hit soon after publication (ironic given that Fforde reportedly sent the manuscript to around forty publishers before Hodder picked it up) and the subsequent novels (Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten - click the links to read my reviews) charting the adventures of Litratech operative Thursday Next have garnered Fforde huge legions of fans.
This popularity has been helped along by the author's masterful self-promotion. Fforde has made himself available at signings and author tours all over the world and he has put together what is probably the best, most comprehensive and inventive, funniest and downright clever authors web site that I am aware of. I should mention also that Fforde has also had two books published that are part of another series – The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear (both reviewed here previously, follow the links) and these too convey his fascination with story and his great sense of fun. In essence Fforde is both comic writer and a literary writer – and consequently a writer quite unlike any other.
This year's new book First Among Sequels, a parody of the title of Jeffrey Archer's political novel is another in Fforde's Thursday Next series. We meet up with Thursday some fourteen years after the action of Something Rotten only to find that she has turned into something of a suburban housewife, happily married to husband Landen and bringing up her three children in suburbia. All, of course, is not what it seems, and Thursday has failed utterly to divorce herself from past events and even now they snap at her heels.
Rather deliberately I'm not going to tell you anything more about the plot – except to say that it is as madcap and off-the-wall as one might expect from a Fforde novel – every bit the narrative equivalent of a M.C. Escher drawing, with the plot continually turning in on itself in an endless series of loops and overlaps. The effect makes for a heady, mind-bending reading experience, as Fforde builds on a kind of self-replicating meta-fiction, building into this story the fact that the story is based on a story and that story is therefore an integral part of the story-within-the-story's story... mind-bending indeed!
For a good while as I ploughed through First Among Sequels, it seemed to me that this book was much less tightly plotted than previous Thursday Next novels – there are many, many plot strands and Fforde shunts us from one to the other in typically anarchic fashion. Only towards the novel's resolution did I begin to see how all these tangential elements tie together – an abject lesson in not underestimating this author's considerable talents. One observation that I will stick to though is that First Among Sequels is less 'laugh out loud' than its predecessors, though no less staggeringly clever. It has a more rueful, more reflective and less punning feel to it.
To readers just discovering Ffordian pleasures, I would strongly resist leaping into this series with this book – you really do need the back story to appreciate what is going on and so The Eyre Affair would be the place to start. If, like me, you're already a firm Fforde fanatic you will not be disappointed with this latest fun filled frolic.