Shades of Grey
Author: Jasper Fforde
This is about a place called Chromatacia, a society which is left after the collapse of our own, evidently. There is a class system in place defined and controlled a person's ability to perceive colour! Most people can see only one hue, some, two. Those who cannot see colour are referred to as 'Greys', and they occupy the lowest perch in the tree. Color plays a larger part than this, however. People's names and the names of locations also derive from names of various colors, and some colors have beneficial or deleterious health effects; Lincoln Green is a powerful illegal drug, for example. People in the lower ranks are treated in some regards as servants of those who are higher.
I saw this novel on the library shelf, and smirked because of the title. I will never read 50 Shades of Gray or any of its derivatives, but this title made me want to at least read the blurb, wondering how this poor guy Jasper Fforde is coping with a novel which came out the year after his did, and has a title so similar to his. Is his novel garnering greater interest because of that or has it been lost in the shuffle? Once I'd read the blurb, however, I just could not put it back on the shelf, so here we are! If you like Douglas Adams, you will more than likely enjoy this.
Wikipedia has an article on the EM spectrum. The visible light spectrum is a tiny, tiny fraction of this. How we see light is a fascinating story in itself, and the development of receptors in the eyes of various organisms is an entrancing example of the modern synthesis of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
The story is narrated by Eddie Russett from his unfortunate position head down inside a carnivorous tree, the Yateveo, but at least it's not a carnivorous swan..... From his unenviable position, he relates events of the last four days when he travels with his father, a swatchman (a color doctor) on their way to a distant town called East Carmine - a journey upon which Eddie befriends an aging Yellow fellow. Eddie has better than average red perception, and has a good chance of an upwardly mobile marriage to Constance Oxblood, but on a visit to a town nearby while waiting for the train for East Carmine, and visiting the sights (the Badly Drawn Map, the Last Rabbit, etc - you know, the usual!), Eddie and his father come across an injured Purple (who is really a Grey masquerading as a Purple), and save his life. Indirectly because of this, Eddie meets a Grey girl named Jane who apparently has no problem treating Eddie (who with his slight color perception merits a much higher class rating than she) with no respect whatsoever. He's quite captivated by her, but has to catch his train and so is prevented from pursuing her.
But would you believe it, when he arrives at East Carmine - a lowlife of a town - the Grey maid who's assigned to work one hour per day at his house is: Jane! (Jane Grey, get it?!) Her attitude towards him hasn't improved. She pretty much threatens to break his jaw no matter what he says to her, but when he fails to turn her in, she does at least warn him not to eat the scones she just prepared - not that we find out what the heck happened to those who ate the scones. This town is even more quirky than the story has been so far. On a guided tour of the town by a lowlife Red called Tommo, who is highly entertaining, Eddie meets the town's top banana - a Yellow who isn't quite at the pinnacle, but will be once his mother is out of the picture. He tries to lure Eddie into 'bending a few rules' for him.
Eddie's father takes over as the town's swatch-meister, treating the sick. The two of them venture into the ghost city of Rusty Hill, where the mildew struck down everyone. Eddie has a list of items to recover, including a Caravaggio painting which makes him somewhat of a hero, although his heroism is somewhat undermined by the fact that Jane lured him into a Yateveo tree trap. How did this happen? He saw her in Rusty Hill - who knows how she got there? and then simpleton that he is, she lured him into the trap with the dishonest promise to tell him the truth. Oh, and he also saw a Pooka - a ghost, which seemed to be able to see him and tried to tell him something but disappeared right when she opened her mouth.
So are Eddie and all the people he knows actually ghosts - and that's why they can't see colors so well? Are they not the survivors of the Something That Happened but the victims? Is the mildew merely their passing on to the after life? Who knows! Eddie gets an offer of 100 merits to visit the newly opened derelict town of High Saffron - where 85 people have disappeared never to be seen again. They desperately need to mine the color from there. Will he go? Let's read on! Oh, in passing, let it be noted that on p111 Fforde doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between ancestor and descendant. Just saying!
Eddie continues to try to befriend Jane and she continues to sarcastically and aggressively rebuff him, although she's becoming progressively less aggressive. She challenges his ingrained dogma at every turn. His friend Tommo (his village guide) is trying to get him to marry his sister while the girl who Tommo himself likes, Lucy Ochre, appears to be a green addict. She, in turn, is convinced that there's a harmony in the Earth in E flat. Since Earth isn't flat, she's likely to be wrong! Lol! But seriously, she's smarter than she lets on. She friends Eddie, and she wants to pay him for her to practice her kissing skills on him, but she doesn’t explain why. He seems to be friending quite a few people, including the adorable Daisy Crimson, and also the Green who lost an eyebrow when he made the deadly mistake of coming-on to Jane.
Eddie makes a bit of a fool of himself trying to chase after Travis Canary - the yellow he befriended on the train - who walks off into the darkness one night to be taken by the night terrors! Although there is a certain amount of heroism involved in his action, too, so this brings him kudos. There seems to be an irrational fear of the dark amongst the citizens, not just in this village, but everywhere. Indeed, the only one who seems to have gone out into the dark and returned whole is Jane Grey.
One morning Eddie goes off with his dad to visit a nearby village of Rusty Hill. They travel along the perpetulite road - a self-repairing, self-cleaning material - in an old Ford Model T. Perpetulite seems not to recognize bronze. This might be important! The village they're visiting was wiped out by the Mildew. Eddie has a shopping list of things people have asked him to bring back for them, including spoons and sugar tongues. Yes, spoons! Even though spoons are banned as eating tools, everyone tries to own at least one during their lifetime, and if it has a post-code engraved on the handle, it’s almost invaluable.
Eddie gets a bit depressed walking among the bones of those who died. He's also startled by encountering a Pooka - a spirit like representation of a human which still appears before him when he closes his eyes. Just as the woman opens her mouth to speak, she disappears. He's even more startled by running into Jane there! This is not only because she's there, but because he has no explanation whatsoever for how she traveled there so quickly in the first place without the use of a motor vehicle. Later, Jane enigmatically explains that she knows how to use the perpetulite road.
She lures Eddie into an embarrassing trap under the carnivorous Yateveo tree, from which he is extricated by his father. Later, he learns that East Carmine has opened up the defunct seaside town of High Saffron for exploration and excavation. There is a 100 merit bonus for those who go, but no one wants to. The 85 people who have previously gone there have never returned; however, the color shortage is becoming so severe that they're willing to go to even to these extremes to mine color.
Eddie eventually speaks to the Apocryphal Man, who evidently thought no one could see him. He didn’t realize that everyone was simply ignoring him. He's a historian and he agrees to answer questions for Eddie in return for loganberry jam.
Eddie has been striking up a relationship with the Colourman whom they met at Rusty hill. He's rather a legendary figure for no other reason than that he works for National Colour. He's ostensibly in the area to conduct the Ishihara test which will determine Eddie's (and others) futures, and checking on the colour supply pipes, but as he grows closer to Eddie, he reveals on the down-low that he's actually trying to track down saboteurs, one of whom is Jane. Eddie knows this, but Matthew, the Colourman, does not. Eddie keeps his secret while trying to figure out if he should tell one or the other about the other, but in the end seems to decide to do nothing. He enters into a somewhat under-the-table relationship with Matthew, and in return gets a shot at joining National Colour, which is the ultimate dream job.
During a weekly meeting of the Colourgentsia, some interesting speculations and revelations come out of the Apocryphal Man (who has now, since he knows he can be seen, has taken to applying personal hygiene and clothes to his body) via an old granny who doesn’t seem to care that she's relating what he says. I was laughing out loud at this part of the novel. The Apocryphal Man lives on the upper floor of the house which Eddie and his dad are occupying, but he seems unaware that there is also someone else living up there with him! Eddie encounters this other person using the bathroom, but the other person secretes themselves behind the shower curtains so Eddie can’t actually see who it is. Neither does this person speak - communicating only through rapping one tap for 'yes', two for 'no'!
On border patrol (the village has signed up Eddie for everything they can get out of him: he's almost become an institution there after only a few days, and he's now teaching in the local school!) Eddie is shown the original Fallen Man (as opposed to the bar of the same name). The Fallen Man quite literally fell out of the sky. There's very little left, but it looks like he was some sort of jet pilot who ejected and landed exactly where he still lies. The village people have surrounded his chair with a cement wall and put guinea pigs inside it to keep the grass trimmed short. Eddie also finds Travis, the guy who walked out into the night. It looks like he was struck by ball lightning, his patrol partner assures Eddie, but when Eddie examines the remains of his head more closely, he finds a metal object the size of a chess piece - some sort of exploding bullet? Who knows! It's a mystery how many mysteries there are in this novel!
Unfortunately, Eddie can't keep the murder information to himself. Courtland, the second top banana or his mom are the guilty party and Courtland reacts immediately by trying to shoot Eddie with the copper spike used to defuse ball lightning. Having failed with that, he and his mum try to bustle Eddie out of the city, but he changes his mind and ends up going to High Saffron after spending the night with Violet deMauve, his new Fiancé who claims she;s pregnant by him because Eddie's own father showed her an ovulating patch guaranteed to make her ovulate and get pregnant. In the end, though, he doesn't go alone.
Violet, Tommo, and Courtland set off with him. When Violet is injured and returns to the waiting car, Tommo and Courtland lock Eddie in a room, but fortunately for him, Jane was sneakily following them, and she rescues him. Tommo is so badly injured in the fight which ensues that he returns to the vehicle where Violet awaits. The remaining three, Eddie, Courtland and Jane continue. They reach High Saffron, but Jane saves Eddie from the mildew which waits every visitor by revealing one of her many secrets. Mildew isn't caused by a fungus but by exposure to a certain color. And Jane can see in the dark. This is why no one returned from High Saffron because the plaza at the entrance to the city is that color. Courtland dies from the rot, and Eddie and Jane return - after Jane has first stuffed him under the Yateveo tree and then rescued him from it to give their cover story for Courtland's death some verisimilitude.
They pledge their selves to each other, but they never do get to marry - why? You'll have to read the ending for yourself. And it's a doozy.
I thoroughly, highly, and heartily recommend this novel.