Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk is about abuse and folklore and the magic of pop-music. It’s the sort of book that burrows deep into my obsessions (one of its reference points is the Long Man of Wilmington). There’s a lot I can say about this book, and the conversations I’d have in person are very different to what I’d write in a blog post. It’s a book of complicated thoughts and feels.
I heard of the book through an interview with John Scalzi. It proved as shocking as Cornell warned – the incident at the start of the book, which triggers what follows, is very hard to read.
The book contains powerful chains of symbols – chalk outlines, downlands, pre-Roman Britain. There are the tarot suits scattered throughout the story – are the snooker cues wands, the knife a sword? Chalk turns up in different forms, not least on the snooker clues.
Cornell described the book as being about narrative, and the character of Angie has her own form of magic, very different to the narrator’s. The idea of pop music as magic seem familiar from Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram universe, but Cornell’s take on the idea is fresh. It’s a magic of lyrics, where the record at number one tells you what is coming in the future. Bananarama becomes a sort of triple goddess of young one, serious one and leader, but “They’re missing someone. There should really be a secret fourth member, or one we only hear about later”. Reference books listing British pop charts provide birth charts.
One thing I particularly liked was the headmaster’s announcement “[School] is a microcosm of the world. We prepare you for your place in it. History has set out a path for you. We lead you along it” – the school here is a world where the narratives compete. The distortions to this world are grounded while having the scale of cosmic horror, again reminiscent of Pratchett – there is a danger of something breaking through.
I’ve spoken mostly about the mythic aspects of the book. There’s also some very good, very raw writing about the effects of bullying and abuse, about the way in which these things persist in the world. The ending is the right one, true to the book, but it’s far from the one I wanted. But that’s the sort of discussion that works better in person than in books.
Louise said there was chalk in every room now.