I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Chalk by Paul Cornell
Published by Tor.com on March 21 2017
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The nitty-gritty: Disturbing, violent, weird and hallucinatory. This story is tough to handle.
How can I even begin to describe Waggoner? He looked and sounded exactly like me. He was also a fourteen-year-old schoolboy. When Mum had laid out my uniform on the bed that he and I had started sharing a week before, he was suddenly wearing one too. He was also going to Fasley Grange School.
Mum hadn’t had to feed and clothe him throughout the holiday. He would just suddenly have what I had. He would find space to sit beside me even if there was no space.
I did not enjoy this book at all, I’m very sorry to say. Chalk was one of my most anticipated Spring Tor.com titles, and based on the author and the description of an unflinching look at bullying and abuse, I honestly thought I’d love this. I was expecting a grim, coming-of-age horror story, and while that’s exactly what this is, it completely lacked any feeling of hope and missed the mark for me when it came to the characters. I hated every single character, even the MC, who is the target of the bullies. There is no doubt that this is a powerful story that addresses a serious issue, but I could not finish it fast enough. I simply wanted to be done so I could start reading something else.
The story takes place in the early 80s in the small town of Calne in Wiltshire, England. Fourteen year old Andrew Waggoner attends school in another town and tries hard to keep out of the way of the school bully, an unpleasant lug named Drake. But one evening after a Halloween party, Andrew is dragged into the nearby woods by Drake and his “lot”—Lang, Selway, Blewly and Rove—and becomes the target of an unspeakable act of violence. Andrew knows that if he tells his teachers or parents what happened, he’ll risk losing the annual school award that he’s trying so hard to get. And so he keeps quiet. But that moment in the woods releases a beast, and Andrew suddenly has a double who seems to be his alter ego, a boy who looks just like him and calls himself Waggoner. Waggoner vows to get revenge on all five boys, after which Andrew will be healed, as if the act of violence had never happened.
Andrew can see Waggoner, but no else can, and as the days go by, Waggoner begins to set the stage for Andrew’s revenge. One by one, the bullies fall prey to Waggoner’s schemes, but other strange things are happening as well. The very walls of the school are changing, and odd chalk drawings are appearing on the grounds. Is Waggoner responsible? Or is there something else at play? Waggoner tells Andrew that everything will be resolved on Halloween, one year from the day he was brutally attacked.
So I do want to start by talking about the things I appreciated in Chalk, if not outright liked. Cornell has got the time period down pat. He sets his story during a time of economic hardship, which makes everything even more depressing. Andrew and his friends live and die by the music pop charts, and just about every new section begins with Andrew telling the reader which song is number one for the week. So there’s lots of mention of 80s bands and artists that I remember fondly: XTC, the Pretenders, Modern Romance, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and many more. What’s even more interesting, however, is the way these songs play into the story. Andrew has an interesting relationship with a girl named Angie who believes songs carry hidden meanings. I’m not sure I understood Angie’s ramblings about song titles, but I did like the nostalgic ambiance that the characters’ obsession with music gave the story. It certainly reminded me of my own music-crazed days as a teen.
The other thing that rang true about life in the early 80s was the complete lack of parental control and guidance. Bullying is common and almost accepted by teachers and parents. In this story, taking your lumps and keeping your mouth shut is a sign of strength, so all the kids go out of their way to hide all the atrocities that go on right under the teachers’ noses. Frankly, it shocked me a bit, and made me sick to my stomach, especially after the “event” that happens at the beginning of the story (an event that I won’t talk about because I consider it a spoiler). Not only does Andrew not tell what happened, he suffers a great deal with an injury that should have been tended to by a doctor.
Once Waggoner enters the picture, the story turns really weird. Now, I’m no stranger to “weird,” in fact I’ve read quite a few books that have been considered weird fiction and quite enjoyed them. But honestly, I didn’t understand half of what was going on in this story. The book is narrated by Andrew so everything is seen from his perspective. He considers Waggoner to be a separate entity, although no one else can see him. There are various references to “chalk” throughout the story. Andrew begins by telling us about the famous Cherill White Horse, a figure carved into a chalky hillside near his home. Louise, one of Andrew’s classmates, is chalk monitor at school, responsible for making sure all the chalk boards have enough chalk for the day. There’s also a couple of scenes where Andrew’s father is teaching him to play snooker (the British version of pool) and he describes using chalk on his cue stick. The theme of chalk obviously ties into the title of the book, but I had a hard time connecting the dots.
Once Waggoner embarks on his mission of vengeance, the story takes on a slasher film-like quality. Waggoner is going to make each of those five boys pay for what they did to him (Andrew), and it’s not going to be pretty. At this point I have to tell you there are some very disturbing scenes of violence and torture. I mean even for me, they were pretty bad.
I guess all this would have worked, if only there were some shred of emotion in any of the characters. Andrew’s narration is monotone and completely unemotional, and once things start, er, happening to the bullies, no one seems to care at all! It was all very strange. I have read that this is a very personal story for Paul Cornell, so perhaps this is one of those cases where I just can’t relate to what’s happening to these characters.
Oddly, I found Chalk very cinematic. I can almost imagine it as an indie film, with its dreamlike quality. Hell, it’s got a soundtrack already built in! It sort of reminded me of The Virgin Suicides, another story that revolves around music, not the story, per se, but the odd, disconnected feeling I had while watching it. But as far as a reading experience, it just didn’t work for me. I’d love to know if you’ve read this too, so I have someone to discuss it with. There are so many five-star reviews on Goodreads that I almost feel like I missed something. Talk to me!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.