‘Chalk’ by Paul Cornell reviewed

Paul Cornell plumbs the depths of magic and despair in Chalk, a brutal exploration of bullying in Thatcher’s England.

The causal unthinking cruelty of the school playground has long been fertile fictional ground. From Tom Brown’s Schooldays through to the likes of Lord of the Flies through the likes of If…, Carrie, Heathers and even South Park writers have been stripping away romanticised perceptions of childhood in favour of recalling the often brutal years when our personalities are forming and we perhaps don’t understand that actions have consequences. We don’t understand, with how big and immediate everything in our world seems, how it may traumatise victims in the long term.  At its worst the nastiness tips over into the more physically powerful and socially popular bullying their smaller schoolmates.

Chalk, Paul Cornell’s latest novel, takes that evil as its major theme. This isn’t a new thing for Cornell – his first novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, had a school bully as a major villain and the issue cropped up again in Human Nature. It’s clearly an important issue to him as this is a novel he’s been trying to write for nearly twenty years but couldn’t quite get right. I suspect that there’s a lot of autobiographical detail mixed in here, so much of it may spring from personal experience. On that level it’s a brave novel, dealing with what may still be traumatic issues in a very personal way.

The narrator and protagonist of Chalk is Andrew Waggoner, who’s savagely victimised early on by a gang led by the charismatic chief bully Anthony Drake, first verbally and then physically. Cornell’s clever trick here is to recall the omertà of the playground – telling is unmanly and would simply lead to events escalating. One of Chalk’s hallmarks is how ineffective adults are at dealing with the world of children on the cusp of adulthood – parents can’t quite relate to children and the teachers lack any authority. The playground is a lawless, terrifying place which adds to the power of the bully. Unable to obtain salvation from those who are supposed to be responsible, Waggoner unlocks an older power. It’s at this point where Chalk really takes off, evoking an adult version of the folk tinged childhood horror of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. It shares their very real sense of children being caught up in a big world they don’t understand as well as a preoccupation with the numinous.

With the summoning of a vengeful spirit, there’s a certain terrible inevitability about the way events unfold. It’s here that the spirit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer intrudes. Buffy, in its early years, was always about the conflict between the old and new, the innovation of youth (and often technology) challenging old certainties and magic. That conflict is important to Chalk – ancient forces attempting to assert themselves over the now and the future, dragging us back. It’s a timely message in a lot of ways, but one of the best elements of the book is the way it’s framed. The comic Phonogram is posited around music being a form of magic and Cornell has a distinctive take on it. The immediacy of songs, of the Top 40 and what was Number 1 was vital to the children of the 70s and 80s. Top of the Pops was almost our equivalent of a church service, with chart songs providing our hymns. It’s also a very feminine magic, with the closest thing the novel has to a heroine, Angie, almost being a chart witch. Cornell turns the charts into modern rituals, into a magic you could believe in when you’re young. Can music save your mortal soul and teach you how to dance real slow? Of course it can. It’s a beautifully simple way of bringing out the theme as well as giving the novel a vital grounding in time.

Chalk’s final triumph lies in its ending. This isn’t a novel which wraps everything up neatly but sees the characters in shades of grey, no matter how terrible their actions in the novel. It’s a book with compassion and understanding extended to the bully as well as the bullied, maturely reflecting that bullies are rarely formed in isolation but usually by circumstance. It’s ambivalent at best about the pleasure of revenge and doesn’t hand out easy justice nor the character changes you might anticipate from events. Ultimately the choice for the characters, the one the story wants the readers to ask themselves, is between letting the past define them or moving forward. That conflict was at the heart of the Thatcher decade, and in a slightly different way it’s also been reflected in the tumultuous political events over the past year. The powerful co-opt the voice of those who don’t speak for themselves to silence those they disagree with or who try to stand up with them. As in childhood, so on into adulthood for those still mired in their personal pasts. Chalk is set in the past but not defined by it. It uses the past to bring out lessons about the present. Cornell’s produced a novel that lives up to his billing. This is dark, articulate and complex, forging something quite special and individual from the personal and collective past.

❉ ‘Chalk’ by Paul Cornell was published by Tor Books on 21 March 2017 and is available in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon and other retailers.

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