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Shades of Grey: A Novel, by Jasper Fforde, Viking, 2009, 390 pages.


03/11/10
By Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com



Sharp, cerebral, highly imaginative and rich with ideas, Shades of Grey brings back the joy of reading from underneath the rubble of bestselling same old same old.

It’s the nearish future (maybe 1,000 years out), some few hundred years after an unidentified Something That Happened. Society is tightly bound by Rules and protocols, and an unquestioning populace is stratified by inborn color perception. Some individuals can see only red, some green, some blue and so on, and there is status attached to this: Purples at the top, Greys at the bottom of the heap, Yellows as society’s hall monitors. (No whites or blacks, interestingly enough.) Complementary colors (Red and Green, for instance) may not marry and shouldn’t even speak to each other.

Our heroes are the naive Eddie Russett, a Red, and the feisty Jane, a Grey, whose paths cross via the suspicious death of a man who misrepresented himself as Purple. What makes their adventure great is that they’re all about questioning, wondering, and in their world, questioning received wisdom is of a piece with questioning the very workings of reality. The story has a 1984 vibe — rebels daring to question totalitarian authority — and also an Isaac Newton vibe — why the hell does the pendulum go faster and faster as you leave it to swing in the doorway? Questions like, for instance, “What was the Something That Happened?” — which most of the book’s inhabitant’s don’t ask but which its readers certainly will — have both kinds of relevance. We get to muse about how this society has been shaped by its leaders’ and members’ choices, and how it’s been shaped by futuristic technologies and discoveries. Whenever something weird happens, we’re not sure whether the work of the Colortocracy or the work of some poorly-understood-even-by-the-contemporaries physics or technology. So we get to be like cavemen staring at a thundering sky. Who’s up there? What is that? We don’t know, the characters don’t know, and it’s totally real, because who knows what the Something That Happened was? Maybe the laws of physics have freaked out.

Finally, a book with actual mystery.

There’s also plenty of Fforde’s signature wordplay and literary references — there’s a Grey named Jane and one named Dorian, there’s an Apocryphal man whom everyone pretends doesn’t exist (“I met a man who wasn’t there…”) — but this is quite different from his earlier “Nursery Crime” series. He’s moved beyond clever references and created a challenging alternate reality, one that’s truly unpredictable, not merely a copy of our own world with a funny accent.

The reader closes the book with a sense of satisfaction but also open-endedness — challenges yet to meet, lands still to map, many questions to pursue. It’s a hopeful feeling and I hope Fforde isn’t joking when he writes, on the last page, that the main characters will return in Shades of Grey 2 and Shades of Grey 3.

A stimulating read that makes other books seem boring by comparison. With an A+ waiting in the wings if Fforde comes through with a worthy continuation, for now it gets an A
—Lisa Parsons






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