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Shades of Grey

Hannah Kowszun

Jasper Fforde
Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN: 9780340963036­

Fforde.jpgIf you've read Jasper Fforde before then you know his novels defy any simple explanation. He is a contemporary writer of seemingly unparalleled imagination. One bookseller in the USA has sold his books with the promise 'money back if not satisfied' and apparently has not so far been asked for a refund.

His new novel Shades of Grey is a departure from the world of the literary de­­­tectives Thursday Next and Jack Spratt, who went into novels, solved crimes there and stopped the plots being changed. Now we are entering into another new world, post the 'Something That Happened'. This is part satire, part fantasy, part sci-fi, part comedy, and completely engaging. In a world  a long long time into the future of our own, a young man goes on a journey of discovery and as readers we are invited to go with him, literally.

Edward Russett is a Red in a society where a person's worth is measured by their colour perception. Eddie is an earnest young man, with a scarlet woman (well, Oxblood) to woo and ambition to bring his family back to ruddy respect.

But the world is not as well-ordered as it might seem, despite the restrictive, ever-expanding Rules of Munsell. Eddie has been temporarily exiled to learn Humility in the Outer Fringes, only a few weeks before his Isahara, the definitive test of adulthood when his colour perception is decided forever. But why is he really there? What happens in the Emerald City? And why is it illegal for anyone to make spoons? We find answers to a few of these questions, but the journey has only just begun.

Eddie is an occasionally frustrating main character. His naivety is perhaps more an indication of how institutionalised he is than purely narrative device. The love story between him and the enigmatic Grey, Jane, is as dysfunctional as the world Fforde has created.

Should you choose to see them, the parallels with racialist regimes and class divisions run throughout the book. It is difficult to read this without feeling that it speaks to the limitations of our real society as much as it does this one of fantasy.

The fascist authority of the Colourman, the innate cruelty of other characters in pursuit of their own self-interest and the elusive spectre of what happened so long ago makes for a compulsive and oftentimes eerie read.

However, Shades of Grey is also very funny. Fforde has a penchant for punning and gratuitous creativity that will in turn amaze and amuse you in equal measures. If you have never read his books before then this as good as any a place to start; it reminds even veteran fans what an exciting author he can be. If your tastes are tuned more towards non-fiction stuff, then avoid like the Mildew.  

Hannah Kowszun