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‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

They all left their umbrellas and raincoats behind, and went up into the Land of Enchantments. It wasn’t a twilight land like the Land of Secrets; it was a land of strange colours and lights and shadows. Everything shone and shimmered and moved. Nothing stayed the same for more than a moment. It was beautiful and strange.

Enid Blyton was an indelible part of childhood for decades, but I wonder how her books compete with today’s Rowlings and Dragon Ball Zs and Nintendo DSs. I also wonder if she actually liked kids, as some of the troubles she visits on her characters for such dreadful crimes as being talkative, or curious seem extreme. Of course these books were written during the era where children were to be seen and not heard. Which despite the ambient prudery, has always given the Faraway Tree books a special place in my heart. This Blyton series always seemed more unfettered and wild to me, compared to the adventures of various numerically aligned gangs of whippersnappers that she trotted out.

The Folk of the Faraway Tree is the third in the series. As such Joe, Beth and Frannie have already discovered the magical tree that lead up into the clouds, inhabited by many strange characters. There’s their friend Moon-Face, whom as the illustrations depict has a very big face, just like a moon. The fairy Silky, who is more sensible than her lunar companion. Saucepan, who walks around clanging and banging, as he has tied many pots and pans to himself. He is quite deaf as a result. The Angry Pixie, who is well named and Dame Washalot, who does just that. At the top of the tree is a ladder leading into the clouds, where visitors find a strange series of lands that rotate every once and a while. The children visit the different lands with their friends from the tree and have many adventures.

One day Joe, Beth and Frannie are told by their mother that Curious Connie is coming to stay with them. They are not very happy at the news, as they think the little girl is far too spoilt and always asking annoying questions. Determined not to let her have her way during her visit, the children decide to bring her up the Faraway Tree, which should give her a good shock and stop her nonsense. Sadly after Connie arrives only to be greeted by the sight of Moonface walking down up to the door of their house with an invitation to tea, she happens upon a neat solution to her dilemma. She refuses to believe he exists.

Even after she climbs the Faraway Tree and has a series of unfortunate encounters with the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and Little Miss Muffet’s spider, she still will not accept the evidence of her own eyes. It is all far too silly. She also makes a firm enemy in Saucepan, whose deafness has a habit of clearing up when he is being insulted by obnoxious little girls. The children are further dismayed when they lose Connie in one of the lands above the Faraway Tree after she runs away in a fit of pique. When they follow, they discover the lands have already revolved and there is no sign of their trying charge. They will need all the help they can get, including some magic beans, giant-repellant and a tricky spell that keeps trying to escape them on its little red legs.

When I spoke to my local librarian about taking this book out, her face lit up with fond memories. The Faraway Tree series can still be admired for their wild imagination and cute adventures with a strange menagerie of trolls, pixies, giants and well-known figures from childhood rhymes.

There is also a very moral element to the proceedings, with Jack, Beth and Frannie always asking permission from their bemused mother to climb the Faraway Tree and only after doing their chores. Connie is shown to be spoiled and self-centred. Her various travails in the lands above the clouds serve to teach her a series of lessons in how to behave. This is reminiscent for me of Eustace in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is transformed from a selfish brat into yet another paragon of catholic virtue by the book’s conclusion.

With rich wordplay, some lovely illustrations and a cruel sense of humour, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed atop the Faraway Tree.

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