Review: Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

shades of grey coverHundreds 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 …If George Orwell had tripped over a paint pot or Douglas Adams favoured colour swatches instead of towels …neither of them would have come up with anything as eccentrically brilliant as Shades of Grey.

I didn’t expect this to be dystopia, but it is. Amusing, unsettling, young adult dystopia.

The world’s amusing at first. Everyone can only see certain sections of colour, and society is divided on those lines. Everyone’s got traits, too; Yellows are snooty, Reds are practical, Greys are the workers…and life is driven by the drive to rise up the colour rankings by ensuring your children have a good colour-vision percentage, and by the need to find more scrap from the past that can be recycled into dyes so that towns and villages can be coloured appropriately. Inside all of that there’s a whole multitude of mystery, a bookful of rules, and one inconvenient girl with a very attractive nose who couldn’t possibly have been where Eddie saw her. The fact that she threatens to kill him is just icing on the cake.

The plot mixes a personal mystery – why Eddie’s been sent to the Outer Fringes – and a murder one; an unconventional romance (involving said attractive nosed-lady) and an extremely rules-bound and practical one; a society that’s as strange as it is amusing, and which slowly becomes less amusing and more dangerous…

The book is amusing, witty, entertaining and frankly – at least by the end – unsettling. Fforde’s writing is good, and the oddities and twists of this book are what make it – the idea of evening stories tapped out by Morse on the radio; a particular shade of green giving an euphoric effect; a rule against making more spoons; specifically dyed green grass. But it’s the wider world and the plot that is eerie and thought-provoking, and although Eddie is at times a bit dumb, his morals and his slow realisation of the reality in the society around him is one of the drives of this book. I admit to a thorough like of Jane (possibly because she opts for violence as a primary solution; it’s a very practical method of problem-solving and, incidentally, problem-creating) and the surrounding characters are all interesting. I particularly like the historian!

So – if you like Fforde’s writing (particularly the Thursday Next series) or Douglas Adams; or you’re into dystopia; then give this a read.