Book review: Chalk – Paul Cornell


There are quite a few things that become apparent whilst reading ‘Chalk’ by Paul Cornell. The first is that Cornell is a big fan of popular tv show Doctor Who, brought about by the many references to the popular programme. Second is that he is a fan of 80s pop culture and thirdly is that Cornell can write a very powerful and moving story.

Set at a private school during the 1980s, Paul Cornell’s ‘Chalk’ is the story of Andrew Waggoner and the ordeal he endures at the hands of the school bullies. I know, it isn’t the most original of ideas, but, hang in there because this is a great novel. Whilst being quite a shortish tale, ‘Chalk’ is a gripping, uneasy reading experience, one that features many scenes of strong violence. The violence in the book is often very graphic, though it is testament to the quality of the writing when you know something bad is going to happen and yet it still doesn’t quite prepare you for the graphic nature of what actually occurs.

Waggoner is just an average kid. He minds his own business but gets singled out by Drake and his friends. What Drake and the others do to Waggoner goes beyond name calling and pushing in the playground. It’s a horrific occurrence that stays with you for a long time afterwards. The story then follows Waggoner as he takes his vengeance upon those that wronged him.

‘Chalk’ isn’t just a cheap psychological revenge thriller. History plays a strong part in Waggoner’s awakening and elements of the supernatural are woven through the narrative very well. ‘Chalk’ is a journey through the psychological disintegration of a child’s fragile mind. The school attitudes are quite indicative of the time in that a simple pat on the head and saying everything will be okay is the norm. Waggoner’s relationship with his parents are distant and increase the pressure on his already fragile mind. There are plenty of 80s references throughout the book. From tv show like Top Of The Pops to Rentaghost, to pop culture icons like Bowie, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet, ‘Chalk’ really succeeds in taking you back to time when attitudes to what is deemed acceptable and whit is not were very different.

The violence in ‘Chalk’ is purposeful and unflinching. It is gruesome reading at times but necessary and in keeping with the time. Being a short novel the pacing is quick but not at the expense of getting to know the characters. As a child brought up during Thatcher’s  rule in the 1980s I can identify with a lot of this book. It is one that really resonated with me for a number of personal reasons, too, and I’d highly recommend it. A note on the ending of this book which I thought was superb. It took me a little by surprise and I thought it came together really well, leaving me with conflicting emotions and a desire to read more from this talented writer.

5/5 stars

Pick up a copy from here.


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