Book Review: Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

I know, I am really really bad about reviewing books I list in “books I’ve recently enjoyed.” I stick them in there and then write about them like a month later. My primary reason for doing this is that I am busy, but also that I like time to think about books. Like, with Shades of Grey, I woke up in the middle of the night two weeks after reading it with a new thought. That’s a thought I wouldn’t have included in an initial review, but I can include now because it’s been a while and I have had a chance to process the book. And to reread a few bits.

I am growing increasingly fond of taking my own sweet time to do things, including writing book reviews. I don’t know if it’s an obstinate reaction to the rush and flurry and hurry of the Internet, or what, but I notice more and more than I do things slowly and I don’t really care at this point if it bugs people. I think that it gives me more time to weigh things, to consider, to balance them, and that as a result I can be more measured and thoughtful, as opposed to hurried and harried.

Shades of Grey is a very surreal and peculiar book. I know that many people are big fans of Jasper Fforde, but I’ve honestly had trouble getting into him in the past. So I was a bit reluctant when I picked up Shades of Grey, but I found myself a bit intrigued by the premise of the book, and as it turns out, I’m glad I ended up reading it. The book struck the right note and tone for me, and Fforde did a good job of plunging readers right into the world without setting things up, and letting us collect information as we go along, which is a narrative technique I am growing to like more and more.

The book is set in a world in which the social hierarchy is determined by the colours people can perceive. People who truly see only in shades of grey, known as Greys, are the lowest class of society, and there are people like Yellows (who often end up in charge of things), and Reds, Purples, Greens, and so forth. People are also ranked by how much they can perceive, on the basis of a vision test. Some people can only see colours weakly, for example. However, people can see artificial colours, which are installed by the government and made from materials a previous society left behind. Colour is something which is very closely controlled and guarded and it’s quite expensive. It’s even used as a sign of social status; Yellows, for example, dress up in garish yellow outfits to advertise their class status.

And, as it turns out, people are also affected by the colours they can see. Practitioners of medicine flash coloured cards at people to treat various ailments, and it should come as no surprise to learn that they can also create illness by using cards of various colours. It is a book which is saturated with colour and questions about visual and social perception, and for days afterwards I found myself thinking about the ways in which I view and use colour. And about the traditions surrounding colour as a precious resource in human societies. Purple, for example, was once highly prized because it was a rare and difficult colour to produce.

A review in the Guardian compares the book to 1950s England, speaking of the regimentation of society and the hidebound attitude of many members, including very strict social attitudes about complementary colors marrying and so forth. This is very much true and there are parts which feel a bit satirical, with characters being very firm about the way in which things are done and how things should be handled. The whole society of the book is, after all, governed by a set of principles established quite a while ago, and people are so bent on obeying them to the letter that they even comply with the typos. It sort of reminds me of highly literal interpretations of the Bible, honestly.

It’s a little bit difficult to fit this book into a genre. Some people might call it fantasy or science fiction, but I think that is a little bit simplistic. It’s definitely dystopian, whatever it is. It’s a book about a society in which natural differences have been so exaggerated and codified that society has become trapped into a web which leads to inevitable consequences. Put simply, people who question the social structure must be silenced, and this is where the book begins to get interesting, as we learn about people on one side or the other, and the actions they must take.

Our main character is initially introduced to us as a social climber who is quite vain about the amount of colour which he can perceive, and who hopes to marry into a wealthy family to elevate his social prospects. He’s sent to a rural community as a punishment and his father, a doctor, accompanies him. The main character is plunged into a world of intrigue as he learns that his society is not all it seems to be, and as he awakens, he starts to question social norms.

He must also make difficult choices and sacrifices, which I won’t get into in too much detail here. But I do like that Fforde shows us a character who really develops over the course of the book and who sometimes does things which are questionable or unlikable, even if they are for a greater cause. He’s a great hero, I think, and he’s also an unassuming one. He just wanted to stay out of trouble and get on with his life, and everything conspired against him by forcing him to confront the realities which lie beneath his society.

The best novels, I think, tell us something about the society we live in even if they are set in a society which seems totally unrelatable and alien. Fforde has definitely achieved that here.