While reading any Jasper Fforde novel, the rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected.
Imagine a distant future in which the job you hold and your social position—not to mention who you can marry—depend critically on the colors you are able to see.
Shades of Grey, sub-titled The Road to High Saffron, is the eighth novel by Jasper Fforde, and the first novel in the Shades of Grey series. Fforde has used his incredible imagination to create for the reader a unique world, Chromatacia, where residents’ social standing is based on their colour perception. The location is Wales, at least 1200 years into the future, a very regulated world run by the Collective, according to the Rules (the Word of Munsell), with towns administered by Colour Prefects. Residents are identified by their Postcode (embedded into their skin) with most perceiving only a very limited part of the spectrum and having no night vision. The economy is run on merits and feedback is of the utmost importance. Most flora and fauna have a barcode. In this dystopia, Eddie Russett and his father travel from their home in Jade-under-Lime to East Carmine in the Outer Fringes: Eddie to conduct a chair census (as part of learning some humility) and his father as the holiday relief swatchman (a sort of medical practitioner). Eddie soon finds himself: not seeing the last Rabbit; meeting some rather unpleasant Yellows; trying to write decent poetry for his intended, Constance Oxblood; insulted by a certain Jane Grey; trying to rescue a Yellow from the night; travelling in a Ford Model T to the ghost town of Rusty Hill; the captain of the men’s Hockeyball team; unwillingly betrothed to Violet deMauve; falling in love with the aforementioned Jane Grey; uncovering mass murder; and drowning in the digestive juices of a carnivorous plant. As always, Fforde’s plot is highly original and he is inspired when it comes to hilarious names (people, towns, flora and fauna, technological advances and euphemisms). Readers will recognise in Chromatacia (a place where impoliteness and poorly-knotted ties are considered the Mildew of Mankind) the absurdities of our own bureaucracies, politics and everyday life. Fforde hooks the reader into his world so quickly that a sentence like “what would a Grey posing as a Purple be doing in a National Colour Paint Shop in Vermillion?” in the first few pages makes perfect sense. There’s plenty of wordplay in this wonderful social & political satire, an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments, and caution with liquids whilst reading is advised due to possible ambush by phrases like “This box contains two homing slugs”. A favourite quote is “The best lies to tell,” said Jane, “are the ones people want to hear.” This brilliant novel at the other end of the spectrum from Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L.James: it is funny, witty, clever and very imaginative. Readers will look forward to the second novel in this series, Painting By Numbers.
Shades of GreyThose of my readers that started following my blog prior to the big crash know that I discovered Mr. Fforde’s writing, and absolutely fell in love from the beginning. All of his characters are unique, and refreshing — simply because they are so different from the standard run of the mill. And his societal commentary that is found in each of his books if quirky, and absolutely commands attention because it is so different from the usual presentations of this topic. Mr. Fforde essentially uses the bizarre end of unusual to present a story that is so memorable that the reader can’t help but become engrossed. From there it is easy for Mr. Fforde to make any point he chooses. But like all authors — favorites or not, they will all have their more preferred books, and then their less so. This book is one that fits in the latter category for me.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is still the realm of the bizarre, every bit as out there as Thursday Next, and the inter-literary world that was established through that series. And the Nursery Crime division has done for detective novels what Sophie Kinsella has done for romance. Namely turned the world upside down with memorable characters, and real world situations — skewed to help the reader lift the curtain and look behind the status quo, to see a changed perception of reality, which alters their understanding of the world they live in. I just didn’t feel like this particular book, however, had the same powerhouse approach that the other two series seemed to have. There was something in the magic of this one that didn’t quite have the same sparkle that the others did. (At least for me.)
That is not to say this isn’t a fantastic story. This book once again dissects the elements of social order, and then realigns it according to the most bizarre traits that Mr. Fforde could dream up. In this case it happens to be an extreme form of color blindness — in which depending on which color category you are born into — determines what color spectrum strain you are able to perceive. And of course how diluted your perception of color, determines not only in which social class you will live your life, but also how powerful you will or will not be able to become. This book presents all of the social trauma that arises with the concept of societal strata, and even points out all the reasons why it fails as well. Since in this bizarre world, which comes across as an alter ego for George Orwell’s 1984, the issues which divide societies are still as prevalent as ever — they are just based on color perception, not money, appearance, or some other element of perceived class stratification, the story has the feel of the altered reality.
Likewise you get the characters that just make you step back and wonder where did he ever come up with this stuff. Their depth and range, though not quite as acute as those of his previous series are still profound and very real, in their own bizarre way. They have all the demonstrated elements of society that one can find in our own world — the corrupt politicians, the naive, the criminal, the worker, the intelligentsia — all are present and accounted for. And yet the world around them is so dramatically insane that the reader can’t help but step back and see these defined societal “roles” as something that resembles their understandings of each, but in some ways redefine all understanding.
Mr. Fforde is a commanding author. And even in his weaker presentations — there is much to be said for the world in which we live. And if everyone had the ability to help people see past their own understandings, as Mr. Fforde can, then this world would be a very different place.