A more fitting title to this review is:
Jasper Fford’s Shades of Grey: A Dickensian Contemporary YA Dystopia
First, because this, like a Dickens novel, is a complex web, I’ll simply give you the back copy of the novel:
It’s summer, it’s hot, it’s our world, but not as we know it. Entire cities lie buried beneath overgrown fields and forests. Technology from another time litters the landscape, and there is evidence of great upheaval. Welcome to Chromatacia, where for as long as anyone can remember society has been ruled by a Colortocracy. From the underground feedpipes that keep the municipal park green, to the healing hues viewed to cure illness, to a social hierarchy based upon one’s limited color perception, society is dominated by color. In this world, you are what you can see.
Eddie Russett wants to move up. He has better-than-average red perception, and he is on a half promise to Constance Oxblood, whose powerful family wants the reddest possible son-in-law to strengthen their hue. But once Eddie and his father relocate to the backwater village of East Carmine, these carefully cultivated plans and expectations are quickly upended. In this new town, Eddie must contend with lethal swans, sneaky Yellows, inviolable rules and an enforced marriage to the hideous Violet deMauve. But then he encounters the intriguing Grey named Jane, whose bold defiance of the Rules makes him realize that the apparent peace of his world as much an illusion as color itself.
As Jane opens Eddie’s eyes to the cruel regime that lies behind the gaily painted façade, he realizes that understanding the social order is one thing, but questioning it is quite another. Quests are considered unthinkably rude, and rudeness, along with bad manners, uncouth language and inadequately shines shoes, leads to one place: permanent relocation, or Reboot. Eddie must tread a very fine line between total conformity – accepting the path, partner and career delineated by his hue – and an instinctive curiosity that only gets him into trouble.
In a world of enforced simplification, answers are in short supply, and every question begets another: What was the ‘Something That Happened’? Why does no one ever return from the long –abandoned village of High Saffron? Where did all the spoons go? Is there more to color than just color? Most important, can Eddie ask Jane out for tea and cakes at the Fallen Man before she has him eaten by a carnivorous tree?
This book was probably the most Dickensian contemporary YA, let alone dystopia, that I have ever read. This makes sense, of course, because previous to this novel Fforde penned The Eyre Affair (2001) and it’s sequels which follow the detective Thursday Next as she chases classic literary character through the chronosphere (I must admit that I haven’t read the series but that they are on hold at the library–bodes well for this book review, doesn’t it dear reader?). So Fforde is very familiar with the works of Dickens and his contemporaries and this is so immensely clear in Shades of Grey.
But, what exactly does it mean to call this book Dickensian?
The Dickens novel that I most connect Shades of Grey with is Bleak House. Dickens’ Bleak House belongs in, I would argue, the high concept region of fiction because it takes the Court of Chancery (this is our astounding “high” (not literal acclivity but rather “elevated”) concept that truly existed (and in some places still does!)) and bends everything—characters, plot, style—around it. Dickens’ book oozes social critique and constructs, in its own way, a dystopia of London as the Court of Chancery was meant to fix, or utopianize, legal inefficiencies but in effect bogged them down and really succumbed to corruption and went terribly awry.
Shades of Grey follows Eddie Russet who lives in a future fictional England, though often the dialogue hearkens to a historical England, after the unexplained Epiphany. The Epiphany rearranged society based on individuals’ perception of the visible-light spectrum—in other words: your social status, who you can marry (some colours are incompatible), and the jobs you can take are all fully dependant upon what colour(s) you can see. This color** caste system is astounding in its incredible depth. Fford spares no world building details as the Chromatacia reads seamlessly into the lives of his characters—and it is just as astoundingly unfair and corrupt as Dickens’ Court of Chancery. Just like Dickens, Fforde doesn’t get stingy on the everyday details of life’s drudgery, we follow Eddie as he is sent to do a chair census after pulling a practical joke over on a prefect’s son. In addition to this he strives to earn merits in order to woo the half-promised Constance Oxblood and, generally, be a good and committed citizen. Eddie runs into various character who are corrupt to some degree but who all live within the Chromatacia unquestioningly . . . well, except for Jane. Furthermore, Shades of Grey is littered with “Great Leap Backwards banning” which disallows successive levels of technology (most annoyingly, spoons) for no apparent reason. The Chromotocracy is based upon “sacred writings” which Fforde creates based on the real-world Munsell Color System which lays out annoyingly complete and arbitrary (and often humorous) rules (remind anyone else of the Court of Chancery?). Oh, and there are “apocryphal people,” or homeless people that don’t fit into the Chromatacia, which no one will (or is allowed to) admit seeing.
The wonderful thing about Shades of Grey is the scathing social commentary, not only of the Chromatacia, but of contemporary society. Social critique above all else, I believe, is the function of utopian and dystopian literature–if it entertains, then that’s a bonus! The pleasant idleness with which people simply live in this ridiculous Chromatacia is so frustratingly believable–barely anyone questions the reasoning behind the rules, and the rules are so darn steadfast, even when the characters are finding “work arounds” they are carefully calculated within the limits of the rules! Oh, and each chapter starts with a funny yet ludicrous rule so that the reader is sure there are many, many, many to consider. The point in all of this, as with many YA dystopia, is to encourage a questioning of authority in the reader. Fforde just manages to frustrate the reader into wondering why on earth no one asks “why?” this too I find very Dickensian–for even in the end the characters still follow the rules in a sort of anticlimax (that I won’t give away here). An anticlimax that is perhaps carried with the reader when they close the book and continue to live life unquestioning . . . or do they?
Shades of Grey also manages to critique the arbitrary way that social status is doled out–in this case it is all cones and rods, but as Jane (a grey and therefore the lowest just above apocryphal) points out at one point that if society were based on nose likability she would most certainly be Queen. Indeed structuring the whole dystopian society upon colour offers a sophisticated critique about systemic racism, why should something as simple as colour effect so much about the way a person can live their life? They way they are perceived. Incredibly clever and very subtle this critique was delightful and insightful to read.
As with Dickens, of course, Shades of Grey was not a particularly fast paced read. Though the whole plot spans barely week the set-up and the world building take their time and Eddie is simply living his life. Though this is perhaps a plot driven book, Eddie is unaware of this and so there is a slowness that is so unlike contemporary dystopia that I relished it. The pacing allowed for entertainment that wasn’t simply children hacking at other children in an arena. Instead we get sharp, witty dialogue that often plays on colour puns and simply being stereotypically British and blunt. The peripheral characters were all flawed and often detestable and so hilarious to read about as they bumble and fumble through life. Eddie, our protagonist who is awakened to his dystopian system by the lovely (and deadly) Jane, has a wonderfully endearing way of describing the world in a tone that rather resembles a Dickensian protagonist–almost blind (despite living in Chromatacia) gentleness with a dash of heroics so that once he realizes something is awry he knows that it is time to question the rules. Jane, on the other hand, is a breath of bloody fresh air throughout the book as she punches, bites and scrapes with abandon and has a lovely nose 🙂
This is all to say that Nafiza made a great recommendation and I now too recommend Shades of Grey. If you are a fan of Dickens you’ll like it. If you are a fan of dystopia you will like it. If you are a fan of conceptual fiction you will like it. British humour? You’re in.