Forgetful plotlines

Forgetful plotlines

The Chalk Man is the bookish equivalent of a summer blockbuster — you enjoy it as you’re reading it, engrossed in the fast-moving plot, but then the book turns out to have nothing specifically memorable about it.

For a thriller novel to succeed at its task of gripping its reader, it needs to tick all the right boxes: a set of mysteries, unpredictable twists, an interesting setting, a steady increasing pace. Further, it requires a suspension of belief in the reader, made possible by embedding a core premise at its heart — some truth about the human condition that appeals to the reader. Without this core, the book remains only a series of incidents. C J Tudor’s The Chalk Man has all the other ingredients, but never quite succeeds in endowing its core conceit with enough weight to anchor the plot.

The story of The Chalk Man proceeds along two time periods — one in 1986, where Eddie is 12 years old, content to be part of a gang of school friends, and the other in 2016, where Eddie is now a school teacher, living alone in his parents’ old house. Alternate chapters continue each part of the story, building off on each other.

The plot begins in 1986, when Eddie visits a fair and witnesses a horrific accident that almost kills a girl. A tall, pale, man helps Eddie rescue the girl. The man turns out to be his new school teacher, Mr Halloran, nicknamed the Chalk Man for his albinism. Mr Halloran gives a box of artist’s chalk to Eddie as a birthday gift, and he and his group of friends take to drawing coded figures on the neighbourhood pavements to communicate with each other. But other storms are brewing in their perfect childhood — Eddie’s mother is a doctor at an abortion clinic, and the right-wing community they live in is uneasy at this choice of profession. Older boys at the school bully Eddie and his friends. One day the friends discover that someone else is using the chalk figures to communicate — to point them all towards a grisly murder in the woods. And this is only the beginning of the descent towards terrors in their little town, with no answers in sight.

Years later, in 2016, Eddie has deliberately put it all behind him. He’s a teacher at the same school where Mr Halloran used to teach. He’s still a bachelor, with only a tenant in his house for company. But one day he receives an anonymous letter with a chalk man drawn on it. His friends from childhood return to his town — they, too, are getting the same letter. As if on cue, the mysteries from his childhood begin to re-enter his world. Suddenly, the past doesn’t seem to be so far away any more, and Eddie is once again caught up in past intrigues.

In its construction, in its plot, The Chalk Man borrows a lot from the templates of horror fiction. The parallel childhood-and-adult tracks, nightmares of dead people come back to life, brutal murders, the eerie symbolism of the chalk figures — all would be more suitable for a horror novel than a thriller. Perhaps this cross-genre pollination is what gives the present book its power. You are kept on the edge for a long while, wondering whether this is really “just” a crime thriller, or whether you’re about to go into occult territory.

But towards the end, the book begins to feel constructed rather than grown. Mysteries are resolved as per plotting convenience, not as per the characters created. Tudor seems to have created a list of strange events and their matching unlikely resolution, and is going through each entry when wrapping up the book. Thanks to her smooth writing style, we rush through it all, wanting to know what happened next. But the “surprise element” strategy at the end leaves us feeling betrayed and with no sympathetic characters to root for.

And that brings us back to my opening argument: we never quite find out what Tudor wants to say with this book. Is she saying that childhoods contain darkness? Or that love can lead to tragedy, or that the most innocent-looking people are capable of the worst things? One is never quite able to make up their mind — there is simultaneously too much sound and fury going on, and it all seems to signify nothing beyond a cheap thrill.

The Chalk Man is the bookish equivalent of a summer blockbuster — you enjoy it as you’re reading it, engrossed in the fast-moving plot, but then the book turns out to have nothing specifically memorable about it. You find it fading away from memory in a while, perhaps even as soon as the next book. Recommended for taking along to the beach or for a train journey, but not to add to a collection.