The Woman Who Died a Lot is the seventh book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. Like the others in the series it is a logic bending blend of fantasy, parody, and linguistic hijinks best described paradoxically as serious silliness. It is a book that will either have you laughing in spite of yourself or shaking your head in dismay.
The narrative takes readers through a week in the hectic life of Thursday as she, now older and disabled as a result of previous adventures and no longer an agent of the Literary Detectives branch of Special Operations, has to deal with a bizarre variety of personal and public calamities. These calamities include but are not limited to a mysterious plot of the evil Goliath Corporation, a threatened local smiting of evil by an angry deity, an invasion of synthetic Thursday clones called “Day Players,” the revelation that her son is destined to murder someone at the end of the week, and the effect of that murder on a projected future asteroid striking the planet. All this, and Thursday has to deal with the budgetary problems of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat at Fatso’s Drink Not Included Library as the newly appointed head Librarian. Although there will be those of us who lament that she is no longer jumping in and out of world literature dealing with literary malfeasance, her new adventures are no less entertaining.
Series fans will find many of the characters from the earlier books reappearing often in cameos, including a couple of villains and nemeses garnered from the usual suspects. So while it isn’t essential that readers be familiar with the Fforde oeuvre, newcomers may find some of the relationships confusing, and a lot of references to past adventures less than illuminating. Still, the pleasure of a Fforde novel is less in plot and character than it is in the joy he takes and gives in the play of language.
Fforde loves a good pun—not any pun, a good pun. In an “Authors on Tour” podcast, Fforde gives an example. “Cowards,” he says, “run in our family.” I’m not sure we get anything on quite that level in The Woman Who Died a Lot, but they are there in abundance. There is everything from names like the tried and true villain Jack Schitt to a reference in one of the chapter epigraphs to what he calls “hobby geneticists” as “Gene Hackmen.” There are the Sisters of the Lobster who seem to practice “nun violence.”
And it’s not only puns. There is a kind of Abbot and Costello routine on assistants to assistants. There are elaborate pseudo scientific explanations of concepts like “inverse consequences” which almost seem to make sense. He even has the chutzpah to resurrect a hoary old joke like the one about the girl who would be willing to grant her favors for a million dollars (no spoiler here). These are only a few examples, but if you don’t like this kind of word play and nonsense you’re probably in the wrong book. On the other hand, for those readers who do like it, Fforde is a writer to relish.
Besides, if you give him half a chance, it doesn’t take long to discover that underneath all the nonsense, there may be something a bit more serious going on. Clearly the evil Goliath Corporation is meant to indicate something about the nature of capitalist greed, the smiting Almighty something about religious belief. As is often the case with humor, nonsense is a useful disguise to make more palatable ideas that some may find distasteful. If so, Jasper Fforde is a master of disguise.