Published by Picador
Publication date: August 4th 2015
Genres: Coming-of-age, Debut, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense
There are many games to be played in college but none quite like the one designed by Jolyon and his friend Chad in Christopher Yates’s debut novel Black Chalk. The novel, just like the Game itself, begins with innocuous pieces to lure you in—Chad, the shy American determined to make the friends in England that he could not make at home; Jolyon, the funny British boy who drew everyone like a flame—friends with all, foes with none; Jack, the prankster for whom a gag was the best deflection, and Mark, the brainiac- a gifted student of physics whose mind is so busy trying to crack the code of the universe that he finds staying awake a near impossibility. And then there are the girls, lovely and diametrically opposed: Emilia, a student of psychology who is yet the most open and guileless of all of them and the dark Dee, literally and figuratively, often dressed in black and promising that when she has written five hundred poems she’s going to kill herself. An eclectic cast, each with a role to fill on the stage of Oxford and in the Game.
It starts so simply: six friends and a game sponsored by mysterious upperclassmen with a large cash payout to the last player in. The Game is a marvelous combination of chance and challenge, harmless fun that plays on teenage fears, but with no real danger. And if you decide you don’t want to play anymore all you lose is the $1,000 you put in the pot. Challenges are ranked by degrees varying from mildly embarrassing to things that might cause psychological discomfort. With luck, some players could pass through a round with no challenge at all. Initially, The Game begins as large fun and is spun that way and so is Black Chalk, but by midpoint things aren’t so fun anymore. The tasks are moving from silly and easy to those that chip away at the all-important concept of façade—nowhere more delicate than in teenagers away from home. Yates plays on this with finesse so that even ‘grown-ups’ will begin to feel a shiver of discomfort when learning of a particular test.
Black Chalk is structured as a diary with carefully numbered entries that flit back and forth from the Game’s beginnings to the present day—fourteen years later. The narrator indicates it is down to two players and only then introduces himself as Jolyon, the golden boy, who seems to have lost his shine since Oxford and now lives in a rundown apartment in NYC; an apartment he doesn’t like to leave. Writing in the diary and a careful, strict routine take up much of his time, but well into his narrative he shares that:
First let me say that my mind is not what it used to be. And even in the past it was not exactly free from hairline cracks, or the odd crevice or two, so please read the following statement with some degree of caution.
I cannot say with utter certainty that all of the words in this story have been written by me.
WHAT?! I’m a fan of the unreliable narrator because, really, how reliable is anyone telling a story, but Yates goes so far beyond unreliability that for some it will cause vertigo or the spins. Nothing and no-one in Black Chalk can be trusted and rather than being annoyed or put-off, I was delighted. Even when Yates stretches the tiniest bit too far towards the novel’s end I was in too deep and was in no way deterred from needing to know how the Game and the novel played out. Yates spins this tale of deceit, friendship, and perception with confidence, ensnaring the reader in a game they will not be able to put down.