Black Chalk by Albert Alla

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Black Chalk by Albert Alla

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rachael Shanks
Reviewed by Rachael Shanks
Summary: Nate Dillingham, the protagonist of Albert Alla's debut novel, is the sole survivor of a school shooting in the unlikely setting of the Oxfordshire countryside. The novel questions whether as a witness and friend to the shooter, Nate could be considered equally culpable for the tragedy. Alla adopts an unusual approach to his theme by focusing on the guilt of the unreliable narrator instead of questioning the attacker's motivations.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 315 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Garnet Publishing Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1859643570

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Seventeen-year-old Nate Dillingham is hailed as a hero following a horrific school shooting in which he is the only survivor. It soon becomes clear, however, that Nate has neglected to share the full extent of his involvement with the police, instead allowing others to place a more positive spin on his version of events. After recuperating in hospital and facing the interrogation of both the police and the media, Nate abandons his family and spends eight years working abroad in a succession of odd jobs. Black Chalk begins with Nate’s return to his family home, as Nate seeks catharsis by finally opening up about his experiences.

Albert Alla's writing is largely accomplished and often stylistically inventive, although he does occasionally overreach himself: My answers were exotic, my logic capricious, my impressions oneiric. There are a handful of jarring moments throughout the novel in which one description contradicts another, such as Nate's sudden worry that he is not attracted to the girl he has just spent the best part of an afternoon pursuing, but this could be explained by Nate's flaky character. At times Nate's personality is infuriatingly indecisive; it's a credit to Alla's writing that Black Chalk still provides an enjoyable read, as Nate's character alone would fail to entice a reader. The use of an unreliable narrator is always a fascinating literary device, but Nate's self-contradictory and shallow nature means he's less engaging than other such narrators, like the infamous Humbert Humbert of Lolita.

School shootings, and gun crime more generally, remain an unfortunately pertinent contemporary phenomenon. Alla chooses, however, to overlook the most significant aspects of this ongoing debate. Troubled parental relationships and unpopularity at school are presented as the motivations for the shooting, but very few pages are given to probing the psyche of the perpetrator, Eric Knight. Black Chalk casts aside the opportunity to engage with the consequences of the alienation of young men in modern society. Setting the story in Oxford means that the divisive debate surrounding gun ownership is similarly overlooked.

In place of these questions, Alla instead examines the view that Nate's passivity makes him guilty. Although arguably less insightful, this approach does raise several interesting questions about modern attitudes to violence. Is contemporary society so desensitised to violence that we fail to condemn violent and threatening language, or so passive that no one feels strongly enough to challenge the views of their friends? Nate failed to challenge Eric or inform anyone of his growing preoccupation with destruction. Black Chalk asks whether this passive acceptance means that Nate is equally responsible for the deaths of his school friends.

Overall the novel provides an enjoyable, if not mind-blowing, read, but Alla's alternative angle on the issues emerging from gun violence does mean that more pressing questions are overlooked.

For those interested in the questions overlooked by Black Chalk, I would recommend the critically-lauded We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which presents a mother's attempt to account for the horrific actions of her son. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult also provides an emotive and challenging account of the motivations of a school shooter. Would you like to know more about Lolita?

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