Not everything is black and white.

Not everything is black and white.

“It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.”

I often get asked, as you might imagine, what my favourite book is. This is like asking an Olympic runner which leg they’d most like to have cut off, or a mother which of her children she’d save from a burning building. But, generally, if I don’t want to get into a debate about how books are hard to compare to one another, I refer to this book, Shades of Grey, as my favourite book of all time. Unfortunately a very similarly titled novel has dwarfed this one, which is a shame, because this novel deserves far more praise than that one.

In this book, we are hundreds of years in our future, where the world is very much unlike it was before. Centuries ago, there was a moment in history known now only as the Something That Happened. Now, society runs on a rulebook that seems to owe a lot to private schools of our era: towns are governed by Prefects, cash has become merits, meals are communal and everyone wears a uniform. Some of the rules make no sense – no spoons can be manufactured, for example – but they are treated with utmost authority. This is a world where they have a system of human responsibilities rather than human rights, where everyone is expected to do a certain amount of Useful Work in their lifetime to make them of value to the Collective.

But I’m missing out the most important aspect of this universe. In this future, social hierarchy is decided by your colour perception. Everyone can only see one colour – red, blue, yellow, green, orange or purple – and everything else appears grey to them. Everything from your social standing, the jobs you can have, and who you can marry depends on what colour you can see and how much of it. This is a world where colour comes before all else.

Our hero is Eddie Russett, a Red, who is sent with his father to the small town of East Carmine where he is expected to learn humility and conduct a chair census. Before they arrive even, in the nearby town of Vermillion, Eddie and his father, a doctor (or Swatchman) find a man who has collapsed in a paint shop. He appears to be a Purple – the most respected group of the Colourtocracy – but Eddie realises that he’s wrongspotted – he’s actually a Grey; someone with no colour perception whatsoever. This is a huge breach of the Rules, but what does it mean?

Arriving in East Carmine, Eddie meets Jane, a Grey with a cute nose and a penchant for punching anyone who mentions it. Eddie is immediately smitten, but also concerned that he’s sure he saw her in Vermillion … but there’s no way she could have got there and back so quickly. Trying to avoid being killed by her, he encounters the rest of the village, including the officious and arrogant Yellow, Courtland Gamboge, the conniving and self-preserving Red, Tommo Cinnabar, and the vile and spoilt Purple, Violet DeMauve who wants to marry him to make her blue-end Purple redder again in her descendents. All Eddie wants to do is to conduct his chair census and return home to so he can marry Constance Oxblood and inherit the stringworks. But he’s started asking too many questions, and he doesn’t like the answers. It seems that Eddie is realising that things aren’t always black and white…

Eddie and Jane

I don’t know how to get across how much I adore this book. Imagine if Douglas Adams had written 1984 and you’re halfway there, sort of. The idea of building a society on colour perception is mad, but is it any madder than any other sort of society we’ve tried? All the ideas here are genius, from the implications of how life must be when you can’t see the full spectrum, to having a world run on school rules. Because there are so many unanswered questions in Eddie’s life, we can’t get the full picture either.

Like all Fforde’s work, it’s a book that’s impossible to explain in simple terms. He throws in so many concepts and lets you get on with it, always with remarkable results. Alongside the Colourtocracy, we also have the idea of synthetic colour, a British landscape full of elephants, giraffes and ground sloths, a belief that good table manners are about the most important skill you can possess, the distribution of postcodes that no longer seem to represent their original locations, fear of swans and lightning, and an Apocryphal Man, who doesn’t exist (and more’s the pity if you forget that). It’s a wonderful, fantastic mish-mash of ideas and yet it all works. The characters are fully rounded and believable, and there’s so much material here. It’s also home to the aforementioned Courtland Gamboge who, while an odious character, is one of my favourite people in fiction for reasons I can’t quite explain.

The only flaw in this book? The cliffhanger. It ends promising two more in the trilogy, but we’re in our sixth year of waiting now, and I’m getting antsy. Having now bought this book for several people and had them fall in love with it, it’s become almost joyful for me to see the horror on their face when they realise there’s still no sequel. Fforde has promised them for ages, but the last I heard the next one in the series, when it does finally materialise, is going to be a prequel.

Don’t let that last bit put you off – this is one of the most hilarious, wonderful, intelligent books in existence. I’ve read it three times now in the last six years, and every time I find something new. This is literature at it’s finest, and you will not be disappointed. It’ll also leaving you sort of wishing that you could experience this world for a bit, take your Ishihara, and find out what colour you are…

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