Review: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde
In book 3 of the second quartet of “Thursday Next” novels, we find Swindon U.K.’s greatest literary detective facing a vast array of mid-life challenges, such as controlling the residual pain in the leg she broke in her previous adventure, not being bitter when command of the newly re-organized Spec Ops literary division is handed to a younger agent, settling into a new career as director of the Wessex All You Can Eat at Fatso’s (Drink Not Included) Library Service, and having trouble remembering to visit the body-art parlor to ask why she got a tattoo reminding her that her daughter Jenny is a mind worm created by a super-villain able to tamper with people’s memories. She has to face budget cuts, a mysterious series of book vandalisms, crises in the lives of her two teenaged children, and an impending smiting by a wrathful Deity—all while being repeatedly replaced by lookalike synthetic life-forms, built to last only a day or so, for some reason best known to the world-domination-coveting Goliath Corporation. So yeah, her plate is pretty full.
At this point, you need to understand—and please ignore the fit of evil laughter I’m having at the notion suggested by the word “understand”—a few things about the world Thursday Next lives in. Right up front: it’s not exactly our world. It’s one of the seventy-odd alternate realities that exist alongside, or under, or (gulp) some yet-to-be-invented-preposition our world. It’s a pretty daft world; though, mind you, so is ours. But it’s a world that should particularly appeal to bookish people like you and me. For example, in Thursday’s reality, literature is taken very seriously. Librarians are legally empowered to use deadly force to recover overdue books, and to protect library holdings from theft and vandalism. Fans of many authors include militant extremists who are not above committing deadly violence to protest revised editions and negative criticism. And the Goliath Corporation wants, among other things, to cash in on the vast, untapped market that exists within the Book World—the text-based reality where the settings and characters one imagines while reading, exist and dwell.
I’m going to leave it at that for now, because the more I try to explain it, the more ludicrous it sounds. The point is, Goliath wants into the Book World; but until now, only Thursday Next could go there. But with highly advanced “Day Players” running around—those synthetic folks whose superhuman mental and physical abilities make up for their short shelf life—there is now a real chance that Goliath will find a way in. And you can bet they won’t go as polite visitors; their mission is to control and exploit.
While Thursday tries to work out what the Goliath angle is this time, she finds herself constantly having to check whether she’s really herself or a Day Player double. Meanwhile, she must try to figure out why Goliath is so interested in copies of not-very-rare manuscripts by a mediocre medieval saint. Meanwhile, her family’s fictional butler (don’t ask) is trying to explore the Dark Reading Matter where deleted fictional characters go, using the imaginary childhood friends of dying people, together with early-model dodo birds brought back from extinction by cottage-industry genetic engineering. Meanwhile, Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday is trying to perfect her anti-smite shield technology in time to save downtown Swindon from a scheduled smiting due at lunchtime on Friday. Meanwhile, Thursday’s son Friday struggles to cope with the knowledge that the illustrious career he would have had in the ChronoGuard (defenders of the optimal timeline) has been replaced with a prison sentence for murdering an obnoxious twerp named Gavin Watkins. Meanwhile, Thursday’s brother Joffy, spiritual leader of the Church of the Global Standard Deity, bravely resolves to face incineration in the divine smiting as an act of protest, while the only apparent way to save him (by luring the smite out of its fore-ordained path and onto a tent full of really sinful people) is one that will only enrich the evil Goliath Corporation—and so Thursday must somehow stop it. Meanwhile (!!!) Aornis Hades, mnemonomorph (that means she can toy with your memory), has escaped justice for her crimes and is hiding right under Thursday’s nose—a problem that, for reasons you can easily imagine, will be nearly impossible for the Next family to resolve, especially as Aornis nears the completion of her plan to make them her slaves.
That’s enough meanwhiles for a couple of books. And yet all of that is in this one outrageous, hilarious, bizarre, brain-tickling book. All of that, plus a Welsh-built car that handles like a tank (because it is one), an order of nuns who worship a lobster, an order of monks who constantly throw themselves out of windows, a former celebrity stalker who is now studying to earn his hermit license, a peel-off painkiller that gives new meaning to the word “bootleg,” a man who ages backward on one side of his body, and the dilemma of how to save the planet from an oncoming asteroid using time travel, which hasn’t been invented yet. Or rather, it has been retroactively determined that it will no longer be invented. Find the loophole in that and you just might be loopy enough to experience Thursday’s world. Trust me: The book will go by quickly, in a whirl of sexy, funny, smart, and action-packed surprises. And while some long-running conflicts are finally resolved in this book, I hope and trust there will still be plenty of juice left over to run the rumored final book in the series: Dark Reading Matter.