While reading any Jasper Fforde novel, the rule of thumb is to expect the unexpected. In his eighth novel, Shades of Grey, the British master of devilish plots and ingenious wordplay proves that rule once again.
Shades of Grey catapults readers into a weird new world where we are all made strangers in a strange land. The novel takes place in the distant future, one in which humans are pretty much the same as they have always been, but with one crucial difference: rather than being able to see the entire spectrum, individuals can only see one color, and the color you can see foretells your destiny. If you’re lucky enough to see Purple, you’re royalty, sitting at the very top of the social order. Just hope you see something other than Grey, which is so low a social standing, you may as well be kneeling.
Eddie Russet, the novel’s unlikely hero, has it slightly better. He’s a Red—just one level above Grey in the grand scheme of things—but a very good Red. He hopes that upon coming of age and taking his Ishihara (the test which determines just how much vision you have of a particular color), he’ll have enough Red vision to qualify for a job working for National Color, the highest governing agency in Eddie’s world. All this changes, however, when he’s sent to East Carmine due to bad behavior and finds himself falling madly in love with a surly serving girl named Jane Grey.
Desperate to win Jane’s friendship, Eddie goes out of his way to impress her every chance he gets. Under her guidance, he begins to push boundaries, and even worse, to question the world around him. Eddie starts to realize that the world may not be quite as rosy as he had previously believed. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
Apart from his dazzling Red abilities, there isn’t much that’s extraordinary about Eddie, but according to Fforde, it’s Eddie’s utter unremarkable-ness that makes his story so important.
“I didn’t want to make him too special,” Fforde muses, speaking from his home in Wales. “When you look at great conflicts like the World Wars, the most interesting characters for me are not the frontline heroes who have been born into a ruler society and could make things happen there, but the people who are basically lower middle class. I think it’s far more interesting for someone like Eddie because he’s only a notch above Grey, so he’s really quite low down, and it would be very, very easy for him to do nothing. And I think that’s really important, because the most extraordinary heroes, I think, of any great conflict or any huge sort of social upheaval are the people who could have done nothing and it would have been okay, and no one would have held it against them.”
Of course, those who have even a passing familiarity with Fforde’s other books know that social satire cloaked in the extraordinary is his bread and butter—his first series features a literary detective, Thursday Next, who can enter works of fiction and frequently goes up against a mega-conglomerate named Goliath that seeks to control the entire world.
Comparing the new series in scope to his previous works, Fforde remarks, “In Shades of Grey, I wasn’t trying to get too serious, because it’s not really a serious book at all.” He continues, “The Thursday series or the Nursery Crime series, they’re kind of silly whimsical books.”
Still, these so-called “whimsical” novels often have a darker tone. Fforde explains that his fiction is all about “being outside of that comfortable area, and tackling the things you don’t really like to write about.”
He says, “With Shades of Grey, I try to start off the book with a slightly Utopian feel, but an uneasy one, so that you might say, ‘Okay, this is not terrific, but maybe it’s the best we can get,’ but then of course as the story progresses, we realize there is a much darker side to this. Also, when you’re creating a story that you want to progress into an adventure story, you’ve got to have a fantastically good baddie, and you have to make things pretty bad for your characters to try to battle against.”
Even if he may have “inadvertently written a serious book,” Fforde is still Fforde here. Shades of Grey is fantastically funny in all the ways Fforde fans have come to anticipate. “Mostly it’s about trying to make the words dance a bit on the page,” he explains. “I think comedy is so important. I think there are so many serious books out there that are not real books because they don’t have comedy in them. Even in the darkest times of human endurance, there will always be comedy.”
All laughing matters aside, with Shades of Grey, it’s obvious that Fforde is breaking new ground. Perhaps the biggest change here is that for the first time, rather than borrowing from pre-existing literature, Fforde created all of his characters and the entire world from scratch. This was a crucial step for him as an author.
“No one will argue when I say it’s a departure,” he says, “but I think it’s a very necessary departure. I think authors have to stretch themselves from time to time to avoid becoming stale. I’ve been stealing other people’s characters for seven books now, and there’s a huge amount of fun to be had there, but it’s not something that can be mined forever, so you have to move either on or sideways or back, but you have to keep moving or else it all goes nasty.”
Is he worried that this departure may leave some fans behind? Fforde acknowledges that he’s taking a risk with his new book, but also says, “Writing without risk is not writing, as far as I’m concerned. . . . Although Shades of Grey is a very different idea from my previous works, I’m hoping people will read it and say, ‘Yeah, it’s not Thursday but it’s definitely a Jasper book.’ ”
A novel containing adventure, romance and a conspiracy involving missing spoons? Even with Thursday Next nowhere in sight, readers will be hard pressed to categorize Shades of Grey as anything other than a “Jasper book”!
Read a review of Shades of Grey.