"Every book of Fforde's seems to be a cause for celebration."
-- Charles Yu, The New York Times Book Review on Early Riser
A new stand-alone novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Early Riser and the Thursday Next series
There are 1.2 million human-size rabbits living in the UK.
They wear clothes and can walk, talk and drive cars, the result of an inexplicable Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event fifty-five years earlier.
A family of rabbits is about to move into Much Hemlock, a cozy little village in Middle England where life revolves around summer fetes, jam making, gossipy corner stores, and the oh-so-important Spick & Span awards for the best-kept village.
No sooner have the rabbits arrived than the villagers decide they must depart, citing their propensity to burrow and breed, and their shameless levels of veganism. But Mrs Constance Rabbit is made of sterner stuff, and she and her family decide they are to stay. Unusually, their neighbors--longtime resident Peter Knox and his daughter, Pippa--decide to stand with them . . . and soon discover that you can be a friend to rabbits or to humans, but not both.
With a blossoming romance, acute cultural differences, enforced rehoming to a MegaWarren in Wales and the full power of the ruling United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party against them, Peter and Pippa are about to question everything they had ever thought about their friends, their nation, and their species.
An inimitable blend of satire, fantasy and thriller, The Constant Rabbit is the latest dazzlingly original foray into Jasper Fforde's ever-astonishing creative genius.
Release date: September 29, 2020
Print pages: 320
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The Constant Rabbit
Somebody once said that the library is actually the dominant life form on the planet. Humans simply exist as the reproductive means to achieve more libraries.
'Still on the Westerns, Baroness Thatcher?' I asked, moving slowly down the line of volunteers who were standing at readiness outside our library, a smallish mock-mock-Tudor building in the middle of Much Hemlock, itself more or less in the middle of the county of Hereford, which in turn was pretty much in the middle of the UK.
Much Hemlock was, in pretty much every meaning of the word, middling.
'Westerns are the best when they're not really Westerns at all,' said Baroness Thatcher, 'like when more akin to the Greek Epics. True Grit, for example.'
'Shane is more my kind of thing,' said Stanley Baldwin, who I think fancied himself as a softly spoken man of understated power and influence. Winston Churchill opined they were both wrong and that The Ox-Bow Incident was far better with its generally positive themes of extrajudicial violence. Neville Chamberlain tried to keep the peace and find some middle ground on the issue while David Lloyd George simply sat there in quiet repose, mentally preparing for the adrenaline-fuelled six minutes of Speed Librarying that lay before us.
Perhaps I should explain. The UKARP Government's much-vaunted Rural Library Strategic Group Vision Action Group had kept libraries open as per their election manifesto, but reduced the librarian staffing levels in Herefordshire to a single, solitary example working on greatly reduced hours - which meant that each of the county's twelve libraries could be open for precisely six minutes every two weeks.
And this is where my hand-picked team of faux politicians entered the picture. Using a mixture of careful planning, swiftness of foot, a robust understanding of the Dewey Decimal Book Categorisation System and with strict adherence to procedure, we could facilitate a fortnight's worth of returns, loans, reserves and extensions in the three hundred and sixty seconds available to us. It was known to all and sundry as a Buchblitz.
My name is Peter Knox, but for the next six minutes I'll be your John Major.
'Ready, Stanley?' I asked Mr Baldwin, who oversaw returns and reservations but was actually retired Wing Commander Slocombe, a former RAF officer who famously lost an ear while ejecting out of a Hawker Hunter over Aden. Remarkably, a solitary ear was retrieved from the wreckage of the aircraft and reattached. Even more remarkably, it wasn't his.
'Three times ready, Team Leader.'
'Mr Major?' asked Mrs Griswold, who usually ran the Much Hemlock village shop, post office, gossip exchange and pub combined. 'I can't remember if I'm Winston Churchill or David Lloyd George.'
'You're David Lloyd George,' I said. 'You select the books from the shelves to be given to Mr Chamberlain, who takes them to the counter and to Mrs Thatcher, who offers them up to the Sole Librarian to be stamped. It's really very simple.'
'Right,' said Mrs Griswold, 'David Lloyd George. Got it.'
I had devised an Emergency Code system for Speed Librarying, and Mrs Griswold was definitely a Code 3-20: 'Someone who village diplomacy dictated should be on the Blitzer team, but was, nonetheless, useless'. Sadly, no one but myself knew what a 3-20 was, as the system hadn't reached the levels of awareness I thought it deserved - a state of affairs that had its own code, a 5-12: 'Lack of enthusiasm over correct procedures'.
The church clock signalled 10.45 and the chatter gave way to an expectant hush. We had seen the Sole Librarian rummaging around prior to the opening, and while she would permit us to reshelf, log reservations and even use the card index, her stamps were sacrosanct: hers and hers alone. Because of this it was Mrs Thatcher's responsibility to ensure that books and library cards were placed before the Sole Librarian so that her stamping time was most effectively spent. The steady rhythm of rubber on paper was the litmus test of an efficient Blitz.
Speed Librarying was also fast becoming a spectator sport - no TV rights offers yet, sadly, but there was usually a group of local onlookers at every Blitz, eager to offer us moral support and ensure that tea and seedcake and a rub-down with a towel would be forthcoming once the Blitz was over. Not all onlookers were so helpful. Norman and Victor Mallett were the de facto elders of the village, and dominated every committee from Parish Council to Steeple Fund to coordinating Much Hemlock's entry in the All Herefordshire Spick & Span Village Awards. They were not themselves huge fans of libraries, regarding them as 'just one more pointless drain on the nation's resources'.
They had turned up ostensibly to support the current Neville Chamberlain, who happened also to be Victor Mallett's wife, to complain bitterly about anything that contravened their narrow worldview - and for Norman to take possession of his reserved copy of The Glory and Triumph of the British Colonial System Illustrated.
At two minutes to opening Mr Churchill - in charge of extensions, audiobooks and swapping tired periodicals for slightly less tired periodicals - indicated she needed a toilet break and would be unlikely to return within fifteen minutes. This was unfortunate but not a fatal blow, as Mr Beeton, a long-standing friend and next-door neighbour, was my all-parts understudy.
'Can you do Churchill?' I asked.
'We shall never surrender,' said Mr Beeton with a grin before coughing a deep, rattly cough.
'Are you sure?' said Stanley Baldwin to me in a low voice. 'He doesn't look very well to me.'
'Mr Beeton is the picture of good health,' I said in a hopeful manner with little basis in reality: Mr Beeton had so many ailments that he was less of an elderly resident and more of a walking medical conundrum, the only two ailments which he had not suffered in his long life being tennis elbow and death.
So Mr Beeton-now-Winston Churchill dutifully took his place behind a wheelbarrow containing forty-six neatly stacked books all carefully sorted by shelf order for ease of return. I nodded to David Lloyd George to acknowledge the last-minute change in the team and she nodded in return as we saw the Sole Librarian approach the front door of the library and then check her watch to make sure she didn't open a second too early.
This was, in fact, crucial. There were two Herefordshire Library Opening Times Compliance Officers in attendance armed with clipboards and stopwatches, the pair funded at great expense by the Rural Library Strategic Group Vision Action Group, which now employed just under four thousand people, coincidentally the exact same number as the librarians whose continued employment had been deemed incompatible with UKARP's manifesto pledge.
I checked my watch.
'Little hand says it's time to rock and roll.'
The Sole Librarian threw the lock and the door swung open. We moved in with military-style precision, Winston Churchill pushing before him the wheelbarrow of books to be returned while Maggie Thatcher started the stopwatch.
'Good morning,' I said to the Sole Librarian.
'Good morning, Mr Major,' she returned in a sing-song tone. 'Will we hit our target today?'
'As easy as negotiating Maastricht,' I replied, trying to exude confidence when secretly I felt we would manage returns and loans, but fall short of our renewal and reserves target. The team swiftly moved to their allotted places: Mr Churchill, Mrs Thatcher and Stanley Baldwin went straight to the front desk and presented the books to the Sole Librarian. Within a few seconds a steady thump-thump-thump filled the air, demonstrating that work was very much in progress.
At the same time, David Lloyd George and Neville Chamberlain went rapidly down the aisles transferring the pre-ordered picks to a trolley ready to be brought to the front desk once the returns, extensions and reservations were completed - and once that was done,
Mr Baldwin could reshelve the returned books, assisted by Neville Chamberlain.
'Time check,' I called.
'Ninety seconds gone, Mr Major,' replied Mrs Thatcher.
All seemed to be going well until the Sole Librarian's stamping abruptly ceased, suggesting a clog in the system, and Neville Chamberlain simultaneously announced that she couldn't find a copy of Wind, Sand and Stars.
'Try Aviation, three-eight-seven,' said the Sole Librarian, her deep knowledge of Dewey classification coming to the fore.
While Neville was dealing with the potential mis-shelving of Antoine de Saint-ExupŽry, I went to see what the logjam was with returns. The problem was a Code 2-76: Mrs Dibley had kept her copy of Henry Ford and Other Positive Role Models for Disaffected Youth for eighteen weeks longer than the permitted time, and the Sole Librarian was filling out a form for an overdue fine.
'This lady was clearly not for returning,' said Mrs Thatcher, indicating the overdue book. I grimaced. The Blitz would be tight, but so far the situation was not irredeemable.
'How is it going with Wind, Sand and Stars, Mr Chamberlain?' I called towards the shelves as David Lloyd George pushed the trolley full of picked loans towards the front desk.
'I have in my hand this piece of paper,' replied Neville Chamberlain triumphantly, holding aloft the book.
The Sole Librarian shifted from returns to loans, and moved on to the rhythmic thump-thump, thump-thump of the 'double tap', one on the library card, one on the date return slip pasted in the front of the book. The next step was reshelving, and by the time Mrs Thatcher called out 'two minutes remaining' we were well ahead of ourselves and a sense of ease descended on the small group: we would clear this Blitz with time to spare. I was just placing a copy of the worryingly popular Cecil Rhode's Greatest Speeches as Spoken by Oswald Mosley in the Talking Book section when I heard a voice from behind me.
'May I ask a question?'
I stopped dead, for I recognised the voice. It was one I had not heard for a long time, nor had ever thought I would again. A soft yet very distinctive West Country accent, tinged with questioning allure. I turned slowly, unsure of quite what to say or do, and there was Connie, staring at me with the same intensity I remembered from our shared late-night coffees during freshman year at the University of Barnstaple.
'Sure,' I said, not knowing whether she recognised me or not.
'It's a book question,' she replied brightly, and seemingly without a flicker of recognition. Oddly, I felt relieved. I'd been very fond of her, although unwilling to show it, and I think she might have felt the same. But after a few dates - she never called them that although I did, secretly to myself - she was asked to leave the college following a judicial review of the legal status of her attendance, and that was that. I'd always wanted to see her again, and I would see much of her over the coming weeks. I'd be at her side three months from now during the Battle of May Hill, the smell of burned rubber and cordite drifting across the land, the crack of artillery fire in the distance. I had no idea of that, of course, and neither, I imagine, did she.
'Well, it is a library,' I said, hoping my sudden consternation didn't show. 'What do you want to know?'
By rights, she shouldn't have been there at all, and not because she was a rabbit. The public, although technically allowed to enter the library during opening hours, never did. We were, after all, simply doing our civic duty by way of the community, and the community, in turn, stayed away and allowed us to carry on the work on their behalf. I deemed Connie not just an old acquaintance, but a Code 4-51: 'Unidentified public in the Librarying area'.
'I'm after Rabbit and Rabbitability,' she said. 'Like Austen's classic but more warren-based and with a greater emphasis on ears, sex, carrots, burrowing and sex.'
'You said sex twice.'
'Yes,' said Connie, blinking twice, 'I know.'
Rabbits aged better than humans so long as they got a chance to age at all, and she was pretty much unchanged in the thirty-odd years since I'd seen her last: smaller and slimmer than the norm, but Wildstock, the generic brown-furred variety. She wore a short spotted summer dress under a pale blue buttoned cardigan and her ears, long and elegant, carried four small silver ear-studs halfway up her right and three near the base of her left. Her most striking feature, then as now, was her eyes: both large and expressive, but while one was the brown of a fresh hazelnut, the other was pale bluey-violet, the colour of harebells.
'Are you OK?' she said, as I think I might have been staring.
Luckily, Neville Chamberlain chose that moment to interrupt.
'Rabbit and Rabbitability would be under six-three-two point six-six,' she said, referring to the Dewey categorisation number that related to: 'Technology/Agriculture/Pests/Disposal'. It was a predictably insulting response. She was, after all, married to Victor Mallett and the entire Mallett family's antagonism towards any social or species group not their own was well known. It was said Mallett children were encouraged to feed the ducks solely 'to see them fight'.
'Actually, Mr Chamberlain,' put in Stanley Baldwin, 'it's probably a six-three-six point nine-three.' This was a little less insulting as it referred to 'Technology/Agriculture/Domestic Animals/Rabbits', but was equally of little use. Connie wasn't after books about rabbits, but the range of British classics retold for rabbits, published when funding was more secure after the Spontaneous Anthropomorphic Event, when integration into society was still seen as guiding policy rather than the pipe-dream of idealistic liberals.
'Eight-nine-nine point nine-nine, Mr Major,' added the Sole Librarian, who didn't much care for rabbits either but hated misuse of the Dewey Decimal System a great deal more. 'Literature/Other Languages. Shelf nine.'
'Let me show you,' I said, handing the returned books to Neville, who hurried off to shelve them quickly so she could return, presumably, to air her anti-rabbit sentiments more fully. For my part I led Connie quickly towards the foreign language section.
'Hey,' she said with a giggle, 'isn't naming the team after former prime ministers a direct lift from that Kathryn Bigelow heist-gone-wrong movie?'
'I don't know what you mean.'
'Sure you do,' she said. 'The one with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. What's its name again?'
'Point Break,' I said, suddenly remembering that I'd seen it first with her at the Student Union cinema. We'd sat in the back row, a place usually reserved for lovers, but we weren't there for that reason. Rabbit cinema-goers, acutely conscious of how their often expressive ear movements can ruin a movie for anyone sitting behind, politely migrated to the back. Our upper arms had touched as we sat, which I remembered I quite liked; it was the sum total of any physical contact.
'And,' I concluded, 'it's more a homage, really.'
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