Chalk by Paul Cornell
Published: Out Now
RRP: £11.99 Paperback
Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with the losers in his school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies – led by Drake - will pass by home in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more, something unforgiveable, and something unthinkable.
Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.
In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
I'm not a fan of schools stories generally. I really don't think they're the best days of your lives but recognise they have a huge impact on how you develop as a person. I find school tales can be a tad triggering on a lot of stuff I just don’t like to remember. School can be a place where you can see the worst of people. Paul Cornell's latest excellent fantasy novel looks at growing up in the early eighties; how people change and although I did not enjoy the ride I am very glad I went on it.
Andrew Waggoner is a teenage boy attending a private school. He's not one of the cool kids and is just part of a group that tends to be picked on by Drake's gang. But at the Halloween disco Andrew tries to be himself and that attracts Drake's gang attention so that night he is violently assaulted. This act appears to create Waggoner - a duplicate of Andrew who only Andrew sees but occasionally swaps places to act with slightly more inhuman powers. Waggoner promises Andrew both revenge and an opportunity to heal himself from the assault. Over the next twelve months the novel tracks Waggoner's efforts and Andrew working out of the price of this will be too high.
This is an incredibly stark and sometimes brutal tale. The attack on Andrew is practically a violent sexual assault and as our narrator (an older Andrew) explains has had an impact on him even today. It sharply undermines that children can often act in the most violent and cruellest of ways just for 'fun'. Cornell captures the sense of powerlessness that kids can feel not simply from a gang of bullies but a sense that teachers and also parents turn blind eyes to what is ultimately seen as character building. Andrew for most of the book is left on his own to work out what is going on. In addition Waggoner takes brutal revenge on Andrew’s tormentors that escalate in visceral nastiness but perhaps more horrifying is Andrew at times seems to be enjoying the ability to hurt others even with casual violence onto others. The theme is that the bullied can easily finds it better to pass their hatred and fear onto others. It’s refreshing that Andrew is not the simple victim and is just as capable of losing our sympathy and instead gains our horrors at his behaviour
A patch of light in this tale is the use of music to almost act as a different type of release. Andrew meets Angie and a strange friendship develops where Andrew learns the power and possibly magic of music (and as it’s early 80’s its good music younger readers!!). How as a teen THAT song speaks only to you and no one else. A theme of the book is the potential conflict between the ancient bloodlust of humanity that Waggoners and Drake revel in and that sense of hope and the future that music can represent. Andrew has to decide where he fits in.
Two things jumped out at me. Cornell brilliantly captures the time – the music, 80’s Doctor Who (shout out to Longleat fellow Whovians) and social politics of the time. The Waggoner family is new middle class coming into a time of old money leading to conflict but both sides look down on the local comprehensive. The use of music is also evocative as we spend a year in Andrew’s life and it really captures the confusion and eventually maturity that comes with learning how you fit into a school’s culture. The other aspect was Cornell really identifies some of the unusual things that bullying can lead to in later life. A desire not to be forced into taking a decision (often at your own expense) and not to follow the crowd even on a silly aspect as wearing jeans!! Yeah this review went into some interesting walks down memory lane
So as a huge fan of all Cornell has done to date I think this is one of his most mature works. Focused, great atmosphere and a hard and honest look at the characters and why they behave as they do its not afraid of holding a mirror up to see a nastier side of childhood than you may find elsewhere. On that basis I would thoroughly recommend it to you (plus the amazing playtlist) and its been on my mind ever since reading it.