Tuesday 8 March 2011

Book Review | Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

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Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour.

Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane – a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed.

For Eddie, it’s love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey...

"Males are to wear dress-code #6 during intercollective travel. Hats are encouraged, but not mandatory." (p.1)

So begins Shades of Grey: with a cartoon splash of irreverence and a dab emblematic of the ridiculous regime young Eddie Russett must find a way to function under. A Red, and the son of a semi-respectable Swatchman, his is a world in which colour rather than creed reigns supreme. You see, not since the Something that Happened happened, untold hundreds of years ago, have people been able to perceive the world as we - the Previous - do. If you can pick out a single colour from the rainbow haze, you're lucky; at least then you won't be designated a Grey. But the full spectrum of shades has been remaindered to all. Thus, in the Chromatic hierarchy of Fforde's fantastic creation, classes are distinctly delineated: if you can see predominantly green, you're a Green, and you'll have to do the things Greens do; blue, and you're a Blue, and so on.

However when's Eddie sent to the Outer Fringes, ostensibly to conduct a chair census as punishment for a particularly handsome prank, he begins to realise there's more to this brave new world than meets the eye -- literally. In East Carmine, our man-in-the-making meets Jane, a Grey with severe attitude issues but just the loveliest nose, and though he's on a promise to a well-to-do Oxblood back home, Eddie falls for the retrouss√©  troublemaker. And it's a long fall down-spectrum.

What Eddie stands to lose in the match, should Jane ever stop trying to kill or otherwise injure him long enough to acquiesce - far from a forgone conclusion - runs the gamut: his prospects, his hardly hard-earned place in Chromatic society, his return ticket to the city -- all come under threat the closer he gets to this Grey. But what he stands to gain is everything, equally: an understanding of the world no-one since the Something that Happened has approached. Answers, for instance, to such timeless questions as "What was in The Little Engine that Could that might cause a damaging rift in society? What was so wrong with the telephone that it had to be withdrawn? Why was Mr Simply Red no longer listened to?" (p.125)

Oh, and love. True, unadulterated, colour-blind love.

From first to last, Shades of Grey is a technicolour treat. Having somehow contrived to miss The Last Dragonslayer, Thursday Next and Nursery CrimeI'd never read anything like it, nor will you have unless you're already a dyed-in-the-wool Fforde fan -- of which I hear there are a fair few. Gratefully Shades of Grey is the opening bow of magnificent new series from the word-of-mouth success, and though it's all worldbuilding and no narrative for the first half, its world is such a wonder of whimsy and well-to-do wickedness, and Fforde's efforts on its behalf so very, very sterling, that I was won over well in advance of the story beats starting -- and never to return, I dare say.

In fact I can point to the very moment when I signed on the dotted line:

"The 'Standard Variable' procedure was in place to allow very minor changes of the Rules. The most obvious example was the 'Children under ten are to be given a glass of milk and a smack at 11 am' rule, which for almost two hundred years was interpreted as the literal World of Munsell, and children were given the glass of milk, and then clipped around the ear. It took a brave Prefect to point out - tactfully, of course - that this was doubtless a spelling mistake, and should have read 'snack.'" (p.32)

Now if one were particularly keen on incorporating colour-based analogies into one's criticism, one might suggest Shades of Grey wears a coat of many colours, for it seems a veritable confusion of genres at first. On the one hand, it's science-fiction. It's set in the far-flung future, with technologies centuries advanced from our own - self-cleaning motorways spring unbidden to mind - and of course the Something that Happened is the collapse by any other name. Shades of Grey also boasts all the Baffling Capitalisation we've learned to love in fantasy, and shares with that species of storytelling a propensity to revel in the invented technical. Come the climax, there's a bit of a quest, too, and we fantasy fans appreciate a good quest, don't we?

Add to that elements of the crime thriller: Eddie's last moments in the capital involve a wrongspotted Purple seemingly struck down by the dreaded Mildew, and there's been a death in East Carmine that seems... less than accidental, shall we say. And Shades of Grey is a love story, through and through: wonderfully painted and perfectly framed. And it's a comedy, of course -- something of a farce. Hence all the time I spent beside myself with laughter, because Fforde's latest original fiction is truly hilarious. Unspeakably so, such that I had to explain several giggling fits to my own partner in crime.

You could feasibly describe Fforde's novel as a rom-com come crime fantasy set against a farcical sci-fi setting. You could call it The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time meets The City and the City with a slap of The Windup Girl and a tickle of Sense and Sensibility. Or you could just... not.

Jasper Fforde hates genre. In an interview with the Scotsman this year he called our insatiable desire to file every little thing away under this category and that "the measles of the book world," and having written six novels and counting in fact set in BookWorld - the very place! - Fforde of all folks should know. For its duration, Shades of Grey resists easy classification, seeming when all is said and done a sort of antidote to genre -- that is if were one to take the measles metaphor seriously, which one (I hasten to add) does not. And yet too often 'genre' works a byword for predictable, cookie-cutter crud, with little originality or imagination of its own to speak of... with only its strict subservience to a certain allocation of expectations left to advocate its place.

Shades of Grey is a story restrained by no such supposed strictures. Erudite, endlessly inventive and punch-drunk for fun, it is a genre novel which could never have come to pass had it been a genre novel as we've learned to understand such things. It is an argument for what genre could be, were it to spread its wings more often beyond the boundaries of the tidy little storage compartment we as an audience and an industry seem to insist it remain in.

And it is an argument which demands a fair and unbiased hearing, for I would sooner the Something that Happened actually happened than stand by while the Nothing that Didn't continued to, ad infinitum. Truly, Shades of Grey is the stuff of superlatives.


Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde

UK Publication: January 2011, Hodder & Stoughton (PB)
US Publication: March 2011, Penguin (PB)

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