There are not too many authors that can change the genre in which they write (Vikram Seth and Sebastian Foulkes spring immediately to mind); you only have to think Wodehouse, Dickens, Austen to realise that most writers stick to the tramlines of success.
By his own admission Jasper Fforde (the man behind the Thursday Next series of whimsical literature based adventure comedies) found it harder to write Shades of Grey than he thought it would be and in the opening chapters the battle between his naturally witty, slightly inconsequential writing style and the serious underlying nature of the story he has to tell is obvious.
Shades of Grey is set in a dystopian post apocalyptic future world where a rigid colour based caste system coupled with The Rules govern all aspects of society. This is a complex environment and it takes time for Fforde to set his scene and establish his characters, some of whom are more memorable than others. The protagonist Eddie Russett (most characters have surnames which helps identify them by reference to their colour based characteristics) begins by being conformist and rather dull (and he has the merit badges to prove it). However it soon becomes clear that he has been sent to the Fringes with his Father as a punishment for suggesting an improved queuing system and in the Fringes things are rather different and a lot less dull. For a start there is the Grey (the lowest caste member) Jane who has an independent not to say rebellious streak, a nasty temper and an indifference to the Rules and of course Eddie immediately falls for her despite his aspirations to go “up colour” in the caste system by marrying Constance Oxblood.
Mysteries abound; spoons are valuable artefacts because the Rules prohibit their manufacture (why?) and scavenging for spoons and (as important) colour generative tat left behind by previous generations is an important element in the society’s economy; why can’t this society see anything in the dark? Indeed why are its members chromatically challenged so that Eddie for example can only see red based colour? Is this a result of some nuclear war or biological warfare?
So why is this book such a departure for Jasper Fforde? Well, in some ways the elements that made his other books so well loved are still in place – witty word play, puns and jokes – but the big difference is that Shades of Grey feels like there is a really serious book inside trying to get out. The blurb on the back of the paperback refers to Orwell’s 1984 and this is not hopelessly wrong (if a bit ambitious) because Fforde has created a new society quite distinct from his usual fantasy worlds. Shades is the first in a trilogy and in some respects it is not much more than a scene setter for the next two books; certainly I had no idea what was going on for the first few chapters and to be honest I did “rest” the book for a while before picking it up again. But once over the hump I found I could not put it down – in fact I finished it at 2.30 am one sleepless morning.
The ending is about right for the first of three books. We learn some discomforting things about the true nature of this oh so polite society and Eddie emerges as both victim and hero in waiting. More important I cannot wait to see more of Jane in action in the next book.