Jasper Fforde has carved out a niche for himself in the crossover between pulp and literary fiction. His works require a huge knowledge of classical literature (mainly Victorian novels), but at the same time, they are written in a style that is accessible, and often hilarious. I quite liked The Eyre Affair, but thought the other novels began to get a bit repetitive. So I read his new novel, Shades of Grey, with some trepidation.
The world has changed. People can only see one colour, and depending on which colour you can see depends on your status in society. Col0ur classes and social structure are so rigid, doing anything outside the rules can mean re-education. But Eddie Russett has been sent to East Carmine as punishment for a practical joke, and along with his dad, they are about to discover secrets that have been hidden for 500 years. Secrets that could change the very nature of society itself.
Fforde has pared back a lot of the humour that peppered his other books, and actually, it works to his advantage. When he’s not trying to show off how deep a knowledge of the Western canon he has, he can write well. Of course, he hasn’t lost that which makes him unique amongst lit-pop crossovers – the ability to world-build like no one else. He doesn’t have to resort to pages and pages of faux-history info-dumps to do this, and instead, he actually manages to pull off people doing exposition talks with good reasons. Genre authors could learn a lot from him.
And this world he has created is amazing. A world where the ability to see colours can define your entire life, and marrying into another colour creates a new off-shoot that’s a different shade. Colour permeates each and every facet of this society’s life, right down to the people who can see no colour at all – the Greys; the people who are at the bottom of the rung, who are ostracised from society, and are forced to do menial work for no pay. There are other people, too – those who cannot exist, so are simply deemed invisible. The man who doesn’t exist actually plays quite a large part in the novel, and he is one of the more tragic characters we are presented with.
There are some lovely jabs at organised religion, too. The manufacturing of spoons, for example, has been outlawed by the rules laid down by society’s creators over 500 years ago, and while no one remembers, or really knows, why this is the case, the fact that they must follow this rule to the letter makes for some hilarious spoon related comedy – something that not everyone can pull off. And, indeed, as the book takes a more serious tone as it draws towards its climax, the spoons are a sign of something else at work. For to not have a spoon is to not exist, and when a giant pile of spoons is discovered, we know something is afoot.
Eddie Russett, our protagonist, is not perhaps the most exciting person in the world. Well, maybe that’s not completely fair. He’s at the brink of being interesting, and on the edge of society, but he still kind of wants to fit in with everyone else. This dichotomy of wanting desperately to fit in, and wanting to bend the rules makes him tend towards inactivity – often caught up with the old way of thinking. But as he moves on, and begins to discover secrets, he begins to open his mind to the possibility that his way of thinking is not so strange, after all, and perhaps even, he might be more correct in his desire to make numbered lists than he originally thought.
It’s hard to judge this novel by itself. It is the beginning of a trilogy, and it could be a while before we see the other two volumes – Fforde is working on another Thursday Next novel. But there are some fantastic ideas at work here, and I hope Fforde has a plan. Well, I’m sure he has a plan – I just hope it’s a good plan. If this novel is anything to go by, we should all be looking forward to it with bated breath.