When you read the back cover of Chalktown and realise it is set in Mississippi in the
1950’s and 60’s you immediately start thinking this is a book about poor white trash
and down trodden negroes with a touch of child abuse thrown in, (particularly when
Oprah’s name had sidled on to the front cover), and in a way you would be right. But
you would be very wrong to dismiss this story as made up of cliches and
generalisations or wallowing in the worst of human nature.
This is one of the most beautifully crafted books you will read in a long time, with
characters so finely drawn you start flicking through to see if there are photos in the
middle. The bizarre behaviour of some of the characters, including a whole street
who communicate with each other only by writing on chalkboards, is so carefully built
up that it becomes absolutely believable and even understandable.
The various tragedies that befall the characters are told with a gentle good humour
that makes them bearable and there are moments of pure farce that have you
laughing out loud.
Briefly the story follows 16 year old Hez as he walks to Chalktown to see the people
who write on chalkboards instead of talking. As Hez walks along, carrying his
disabled brother, the author fills you in on the rest of his dysfunctional family and
then flicks back six years to build up the story of Chalktown itself.
I found myself a little confused with the geography of the area where the story is set
as it takes Hez a whole day to walk to Chalktown but seemingly only a few minutes
for others to drive there so I wished there had been a map at the beginning – but
other readers may not find this a problem.
The end of the book is thoroughly satisfying, unexpected, and hilarious. Watch out
for a character who flits through the book without really being pinned down by the
other characters or the author but who ultimately holds the key to everything.
Chalktown is a wonderful book, immensely readable, wise and funny. You will
continue to muse on the story long after you have finished the last page.