The Common Good
May 2013

And Now for Something Different

by Elizabeth Palmberg | May 2013

The Woman Who Died A Lot. Viking Adult

WHEN A COLLEAGUE told me Sojourners had received a review copy of the latest Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde, I was delighted—and confused. My delight came because I’m a huge fan of the series, whose protagonist Thursday lives in an alternate-reality U.K. and, in previous novels, has worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction. My favorite scene was when, several novels back, she helped Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham moderate an anger management group in Wuthering Heights, set up to keep it from going the way of “that once gentle comedy of manners, ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

However, it was unclear why anyone would send a book from this series to a Christian social justice-oriented magazine. My best guess, as I gleefully devoured The Woman Who Died A Lot, was that some hilariously over-optimistic publicist thought we’d be interested in the novel’s subplot in which God reveals Godself by smiting various cities with columns of fire—sometimes in response to sin, sometimes to “unimaginative architecture, poor restaurants, or even an overly aggressive parking fine regime.” Thursday’s hometown of Swindon is next on the smite list, possibly to increase God’s bargaining position against the locally based Global Standard Deity church. The GSD, having unified the world’s religions, plans to use its “collective bargaining powers” to open formal negotiations with God, starting with the question, “What, precisely, is the point of all this?”

If I were Brian McLaren, I could no doubt get mileage out of this negotiating-with-God idea, and out of the novel’s various speculations about whether notbelieving might make God (or, in a separate subplot, an asteroid hurtling toward the Earth) cease to exist. Other storylines—a villain who can alter memories convinces Thursday she has an extra child; Thursday’s teenage son Friday is apparently fated to murder someone who may or may not be an irredeemable louse—could, at a stretch, fuel theological debate about identity or free will.

If I were a Left Behind fan, I’d be paranoid about the one-world religion, or perhaps just peeved that the whole thing could be read as a sendup of Christian apocalypse fiction: The GSD church, far from being a pawn of the Antichrist, is transparent and reasonable. The cleansing fire is considered as a possible source of electricity. God’s use of cataclysmic destruction to reveal God’s existence—which causes Richard Dawkins to commit suicide—does not stop believers from kvetching about maybe just switching over to Diana the Huntress. The novel’s biggest bad guy, and the source of most of its plot, is not the U.N. but rather an amoral corporation, Goliath, whose minions repeatedly replace Thursday herself with short-lived fakes (hence the title).

Ultimately, any deep thoughts or socio-religious criticism you see in The Woman Who Died A Lot are not only imposed by you, but also missing the point—the equivalent of a sermon based on a Monty Python sketch. The smiting plot is resolved in a way that makes narrative rather than theological sense, and only when I heard Fforde, speaking in Washington, D.C., last year, describe the novel as darker in tone than its predecessors did I realize that he did not mean to milk a subplot about narcotics abuse strictly for laughs.

Fforde also described “the neverending pursuit of a lame joke” as “kind of like my philosophy of life.” It’s not actually much like philosophy at all—and it will stymie those offended by cheap shots or wildly inconsistent characterization—but it does make the Thursday Next novels great, silly fun.

In a final joke that mocks overanalysis, my copy of The Woman Who Died A Lot turned out to have been sent to our office not by a publicist, but by my sister (in an inadequately marked gift package). So, here’s a minor, silly miracle: We’re reviewing it anyway.       

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners. At a Fforde reading a few years ago, she told the author that his novels had helped her get through chemotherapy—not as much as Jesus or her friends, but a surprisingly close third.

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