book review: the chalk man

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor
Crown Publishing, 280 pp.
Published January 9, 2018

The Chalk Man

Summary (via Goodreads): In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same.

In 2016, Eddie is fully grown and thinks he's put his past behind him, but then he gets a letter in the mail containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank--until one of them turns up dead. That's when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

My thoughtsThe Chalk Man adds up to a bag as thoroughly mixed as the sweets sacks Eddie and his friends buy at the town shop. Certain elements—a darker tone, morally ambiguous yet realistic characters—suggest a superior mystery read, while others—inconsistent writing and an overly complicated plot—conspire to make this one of the more frustrating books I've picked up this year. Ultimately the positives outweighed the negatives, particularly when taking into account this is a first outing for Ms. Tudor. She has a knack for the unsettling and macabre that bodes well for future novels, as she settles into a style of writing and storytelling that suits her (and her readers) best.

All of The Chalk Man's characters exist somewhere south of moral goodness. Narrator Eddie stays consistently off-putting, as an adult. Not in a blatantly villainous way—he reminds me of any number of old schoolmates whose lives never matched up to the glory of their youth. It's here that the alternating timelines of 1986 and 2016 work their magic, keeping him from discouraging any reading progress; by getting to know Eddie as a child, the shortcomings and character flaws of middle age feel grounded in experience. Despite the gap of thirty years you can trace connections from the (sometimes traumatic) events of his adolescence all the way through to his semi-alcoholic, off-kilter adulthood. The remainder of his gang elicit various degrees of sympathy, with the sole girl member strongly reminiscent of Beverly Marsh from It. The eerie new teacher in town, susceptible to teasing due to albinism, strikes a great balance between creepiness and awkward loneliness.

An abundance of characters may have proven too much a temptation. In addition to the murder in 1986, several other subplots churn beneath the surface. Some bear direct and pressing relevance to the central crime, while others dangle too loosely and feel like a distraction. Additionally, Ms. Tudor's prose was sometimes quite choppy. I found myself backtracking a few sentences to tease out an unclear thought or action more often than I would like, particularly since none of the passages in question concerned the twistiest aspects of the plot. She also makes ample use of a writing device I find sophomoric. Several chapters end on cliffhangers (which I don't mind at all!) only to tack on an ominous allusion to revelations in later chapters. It's a heavy-handed device better suited to children's books, rather than adult fiction.

The Chalk Man unquestionably sticks its landing, though. I cannot remember the last time a book's final chapter dropped my jaw like this, all while fitting in perfectly with the tone and foreshadowing of the preceding pages. (Gone Girl, maybe? In shock level, not content.) Those last five pages almost eradicate the shortcomings of the previous 275...almost.

For those who enjoy their mystery/thrillers on the decidedly darker side, The Chalk Man fits the bill. A couple of late-developing twists help to elevate it above its peers, although inconsistent writing and a tendency towards over-plotting make Ms. Tudor's debut novel feel longer than it really is. There's enough here to recommend it for genre fans, and I'm looking forward to seeing how her style matures over time.

RATING: ★★★

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2 comments:

  1. This sounds right up my alley! Great review!

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    1. Thanks Erica! There were definitely some great ideas at play throughout the book. Let me know what you think!

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