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Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

'Stars?' Murmured Lucy. The obsolete word sounded ancient on her tongue and to our ears. But we all murmured our understanding. We'd heard about them, but not considered that we would ever be able to observe them in any meaningful way. As with the Pyramids, the Great Sweat, Chuck Naurice, Tariq al-Simpson, M'Donna and the Rainbowsians, we all knew they had once existed, but there was no record, or proof - they were now just labels on lost memories, cascading down the years from resident to resident, echoes of lost knowledge.

I'm a huge Fforde Ffan, and his literary detective Thursday Next has to be one of my all time favourite fictional characters. Shades of Grey is the first novel in Fforde's new series and marks quite a radical departure from the brand of absurdist literary fantasy that he made his own in the the Thursday and Nursery Crime series'. What we have here is a piece of dystopian world building with a much darker overall tone although Fforde's trademark charming absurdism is still abundantly present. Eddie Russett lives in a world that very well might be our own Earth at some point in the distant future, or on an alternate timeline. In the distant past some sort of disaster (referred to only as the "Something that Happened") eradicated earlier society (known only as "The Previous") and the new civilisation that has replaced partially resembles a nationwide grammar school with its system of prefects, assemblies, communal dinners and antiquated rules governing all aspects of dress and behaviour. If that wasn't nightmarish enough, it seems that colour is largely lacking from Eddie's society and so colour perception has become the primary hierarchical cue: society is divided and lives are determined by citizens' ability to perceive different colours with those seeing most purple at the top and the lowly greys carrying out all the menial labour. Complementary colours are strictly forbidden from marrying and those with a good score in their colour perception test can go on to become prefects or even ascend the heights to work for National Colour. Carefully applied colour swatches can also be used to treat medical conditions or abused for the high, called "chasing the frog."

Eddie starts the novel very happy to be a law abiding member of this strange colourtocracy. He knows he has better than average red perception and fully expects to marry into the lofty Oxblood family and take a cushy job. All that changes when he and his father are sent to East Carmine, a town in the Outer Reaches. There he meets and falls for a rebellious grey named Jane and begins to have his eyes opened to the dark truths that underpin his society. The pace of this novel is fairly sedate and exploratory until the final quarter, at which point it becomes a real page turner, a race against time with lives, and a whole ideology, on the line. The early chapters are fascinating too, though, as Fforde has conjured up such a novel idea for a dystopia - and one that seems fairly naive on the surface but becomes increasingly sinister as more details are revealed - it's good to have space and time given to get fully immersed in Eddie's world.

The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered and there were some things that didn't fully make sense about the use of colour in the book. But Eddie's culture is such a confused and bizarre one that it was hard to tell whether these were genuine authorial oversights or just further evidence of the jumbled way in which the scanty and continually censored evidence of The Previous is appropriated and interpreted within the Colourtocracy. Dark and refreshingly offbeat, I will eagerly await the promised further two instalments...
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September 2010

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