Jasper Fforde is well-known for his Thursday Next series of literary detection, such as The Eyre Affair, and Something Rotten, and his Nursery Crimes series, where Inspector Jack Sprat investigates crimes with nursery rhyme characters. Fforde takes often well-known stories and books (Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example) and turns them into thrillers full of puns, word-play, and famous characters playing against type.
Shades of Grey is something a little different – although there’s the same linguistic delight in language, puns and quirky characters – the underlying premise is rather less light-hearted than his previous books. It’s set in a very much future world, where people’s social class is determined on the basis of their perception of colour: the lowest class are the greys, who can’t see colour at all, and who do all the dirtiest and most menial jobs; the highest are purples or ultra-violets. No-one appears to be able to see all colours. The concept of colour as a resource is one that is interesting, but quite alien; scrap colour is collected in villages and towns, and outside these safe areas, and made into new colour; synthetic colours are made which are perceptible to all people; and things aren’t naturally coloured – they have to be tinted.
Our narrator and protagonist is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is accompanying his father, a qualified Swatchman (equivalent to a doctor, using colours as remedies) to the Outer Fringes – the town of East Carmine, to be exact. While in Vermillion, where their train starts, they encounter an ill Purple man in National Colour’s Paint Shop – Eddie’s father tries all he can to help the man, but it’s only when Eddie suggests that he’s actually a Grey, masquerading as a Purple (something almost unthinkable in this stratified society), that the right colour combinations are administered and the man recovers. It’s here in Vermillion that Eddie meets Jane for the first time, a Grey who startles him by being shockingly rude, and with whom he falls suddenly in love.
Trying to review this novel is pretty tricky, I think, given that so much is plain inventive and cleverly done – to explain all about the Colourtocracy and why no-one ventures out of doors after dark, would take up pages – though the oppression of the Greys and the fact that one can be fined points for not being sufficiently sycophantic or disobeying orders (however stupid they may be) given by a Colour of higher rank are the first signs of something less quirky. The professions open to Colours seem fairly pointless – like the Oxbloods’ string dynasty, into which Eddie hopes to marry to secure a better position – and Eddie is ordered to undertake a Pointless Task – a chair survey – as part of a punishment for a prank played.
The impression is of rigid, unbending bureaucracy, with the few non-conformists sent for Reboot, or re-education. Rules govern every part of life, with a spoon quota system, the partaking of communal meals, and a points system based on how well one follows the rules and attains social credit (or loses it). It’s while Eddie and his father are in East Carmine that Eddie discovers, through his curiosity about Jane, what might really be going on.
“Jane stared at me for a moment, then shook her head sadly.
‘So you really are as stupid as you look?’
‘I’m far more stupid than that,’ I assured her, ‘but then curiosity has always got me into trouble. You should have heard Old Man Magenta sound off when I tried to improve queuing.’
‘Normally I would tend to look on curiosity with favour,’ she said, ‘but I think this time it’s far safer to just have you eaten. Unless, of course, you can think of a good reason why I shouldn’t?’
The very real prospect of death focuses the mind wonderfully.”
This book is clever, crafty and absurd – I just just love the idea of a spoon shortage, or that postcodes are assigned at birth – as well as being moving and thought-provoking. The characters are quirky and believable, despite their bizarre environs – the librarians are particularly sad, curating work that no longer exists, and about which they have no real knowledge. Fforde writes in a tricky sort of way, concealing and revealing like a detective novel, but his prose is readable and enjoyable: there’s a lot of dialogue. Although the world is very different to ours, Fforde doesn’t info-dump, with much of the information coming through dialogue or Eddie’s train-of-thought narration.
I had a lot of fun reading this, although there is a serious side, and am looking forward to the next episodes, Painting by Numbers and The Gordini Protocols.
*I’ve just noticed that I originally wrote this post under the incorrect title Grey Area – which is actually a book of short stories by Will Self. Apologies for any confusion caused!