Part fantasy, part dystopian, part satire, part sci-fi, part thriller, part romance, Shades of Grey is the first in a genre-defying series by Jasper Fforde, where one’s place in the social hierarchy is determined by his or her limited colour perception.
Jasper Fford is the author of the acclaimed Thursday Next series, but was completely unknown to me when I picked Shades of Grey up off the shelves of my favourite book shop, Circus Books and Music.
If you’re a book-loving Torontonian like myself, you need to pay Circus Books and Music an immediate visit. The store is owned by a super friendly bookmonger called Ron who always has a fun story or anecdote to share when I’m checking out. And he almost always has what I’m looking for in stock. I don’t know how he does it! I’ve left Circus Books and Music with a massive stack of paperbacks in my arms on numerous occasions.
On this particular day, Ron sold me a copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, a biography on Mao Zedong, and Fforde’s Shades of Grey. My plan was as follows: read the first page of each book and start with whichever best caught my interest.
I picked up Shades of Grey, began reading the first page, and didn’t put it down again for the next two hours.
Shades of Grey immediately drew me into its peculiar, colour-coded world of Chromatacia, where ‘Yellows’ make up the elite, ‘Greys’ (those with no colour perception at all) comprise society’s lowest rung, doctors called “swatchmen” show swatches of colour to patients to rid what ails them, and certain shades, such as Lincoln green, are outlawed due to their narcotic properties. Shades of Grey is weird in all the right ways.
The story follows Eddie Russett, a 'Red' with excellent colour perception, who gets sent to East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There he meets Jane, an ill-tempered and unruly 'Grey', and together they seek to uncover the false evangelism that keeps their world intact.
This was easily the most visual and imaginative book I’ve read in a very long time. It’s Terry Pratchet’s Discworld meets George Orwell’s 1984 meets Terry Gilliams’s Brazil. It’s full of bizarre details, fortuitous plot turns, and inventive wordplay.
And that’s not all! In addition to being the literary equivalent of a thermonuclear detonation, Shades of Grey is a very clever work of satire. Citizens of Chromatacia live in a world of planned economies and repressive bureaucracy. They are coerced into following strange, arbitrary rules such as rule 1.1.19.02.006, which states that team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports, or rule 184.108.40.206.028, which dictates that Ovaltine may not be drunk at any time other than before bed, and prestige is awarded to those who possess arbitrary characteristics (i.e., colour perception) that are outside their realm of control.
Shades of Grey is an incredibly amusing and whimsical novel, and one that doesn’t hold the reader’s hand as she progresses through it. In fact, that was my favourite part about the novel: it felt like I was exploring the world of Chromatacia myself, experiencing the same confusion and thrills as its inhabitants.
I tend to get caught up reading books that are very serious and reflective; Shades of Grey reminded me just how fun reading can be.
Jasper Fford’s followup, Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers, will purportedly be available later this year, with two more novels scheduled to be released shortly after. Colour me very excited.