Last year at Convergence, I heard Unreliable Alumni Paul Cornell read from an upcoming novel, Chalk. At the time, Cornell expressed he had been working on the book for a number of years. What Cornell read captivated and terrified me. Chalk more than delivered on the promise of the reading.
Chalk takes place in 1980’s England in Wiltshire. Cornell and I are similar in age. I went to school in Scotland in 1978, the child of a local girl from Dunoon and a Yank sailor. In many ways, it was easy for me to feel the atmosphere Cornell was writing about, being in a similar place at a similar age. And another dimension disturbed me deeply–while my brief time at Dunoon Grammar School was pleasant, most of my school experience in Iowa was harsh and hard. Chalk sounded depths in me as it married and blended so many of my own experiences, not in specifics, but in emotions. I am certain I am not the only reader who has thought so.
The challenge Cornell has taken on is to tell the story with brutal honesty. This isn’t a story about a strange victim concocting revenge, or a heroic boy overcoming the odds of difficulty. This is the story about someone maimed in body and spirit stumbling to find their way through trauma. The boundaries of what is real and what isn’t melt and twist. Even the narrator, especially the narrator of the story, doesn’t know. For such a speculative piece, this grounding in psychological reality makes the work a masterpiece.
Some are saying Chalk is literary more than speculative. It is definitely both, a cross genre work that satisfies this English professor on many levels, and the troubled child I was on many more. The truth of the story, the reflection of the uneasy adolescence, and unflinching portrayal of the past make this book a must read, if a difficult one.