Book Review: Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde
Viking, 2009
400 pages
hard cover


I love this book.

Like all Jasper Fforde's novels, it takes some toe-dipping to get into, but Fforde has earned the patience of his readers. His standard MO is to write completely unintelligible things for the first couple chapters until the reader starts to understand it and it begins to make some kind of strange sense. Think of it as cultural immersion, the same way a person might learn a new language by being surrounded by it. It always works out in the end, so long as you have the gumption to stick with it.

Fforde's track record with the Thursday Next series, and the Nursery Crime books, opens the door for him to write this completely unanchored novel, itself the first of a trilogy. Without giving too much away, I'll simply note that it takes place in a future where everything's gone a bit retrograde and status is determined by color—not of one's skin, but what color (and how much of it) one is able to see. Society labors under strict and strange rules handed down by a man named Munsell, and poor Eddie Russett strives to be good in a world populated by people who are bent on being bad.

The question becomes: is circumventing an oppressive government—breaking the rules—a bad thing? It depends on one's motives . . .

Fforde is as clever as ever here (though I have a couple questions for him, which I've posted on his Web site's forum—if you please, Mr. Fforde). He's created a world any parageographer could be proud of, and his characters are thorough, even if most seem beyond redemption. The reader feels Eddie's frustration, and in many cases finds him- or herself frustrated with Eddie in particular. But the main character's cluelessness is the perfect mode of travel for the reader, who is new to all that Eddie takes for granted and joins him on his learning curve.

Call it a tale of opening one's eyes after suffering blind faith in the system. A tale for the ages, and the kind of thing they'll be teaching in high school along side 1984 in another decade or so. Well worth a read, and certainly more satisfying if you can get a book club to take it on and discuss it afterward.

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