Black Chalk

black chalkThe Short Version: Six young people at Oxford, an American exchange student and his rag-tag group of five English friends, decide to play a game of escalating dares and challenges. What began as fun quickly turns into something altogether more dangerous – and, in the present, one of the survivors must prepare for the final round.

The Review: I’m going to just say it. “Not since Gone Girl…”

I’m as tired of that comparison as anybody and I should clarify that this book doesn’t really relate to Flynn’s novel in any way other than that it’s a thriller and uses some of the same tools. But it was with Gone Girl that I last felt that overwhelming rush of twisted pleasure, that particular drug of fear and fascination that propels you from one twist to the next, so of course I thought of it while reading this and feeling exactly that same rush. In this, we find one of the highest compliments I can deliver: this book had me hooked and breathless.

We have two narratives when the novel opens. One, told in first person as a sort of diary, follows an (initially) nameless man of presumably middle age as he begins to re-enter the world after a period of hermitude somewhere in Manhattan. The other, told in a relatively close third person that sometimes zooms out to the omniscient, is the story of a young American exchange student at Oxford and his friends. How the two stories are connected is, of course, an early mystery – but Yates dispatches with it before it gets tiresome, a trend that he maintains throughout the novel: always moving forward. I think it might be this that separates his book from most other thrillers, where the author is proud of their trickery and wants to revel in it. Yates is smarter than that, knowing that a reader is always going to be interested in the next trick before long and so he keeps upping the ante as this game of a book goes on.

A game might be the best way to describe this book, both because of its content and its form. In the sense of the latter, we know that Yates is playing with us and we are constantly trying to outwit him and figure things out for ourselves – but certain reveals, doled out just before you’d expect them, force the reader to stay off balance and to wonder about the veracity of what they’ve read. Yates delivers a novel twist on unreliable narration and, when it occurred, I flipped back and wondered just what might’ve been false all along.
In the sense of the former, we come to Yates’ most thrilling and interesting idea: the game played by Jolyon, Chad, and their friends. The idea is that they will, under the guidance of a mysterious club at school, play rounds involving dice and cards and the loser will then have to draw a “consequence.” These consequences fall into three categories of increasing shall-we-say difficulty and are meant to be embarrassing to the performer. Maybe it’s something as simple as wearing an ostentatious scarf around campus for a week or repeatedly saying a word incorrectly. But it can also be more psychologically intense, like giving a Marxist speech at a conservative group’s rally or flirting with a member of the same sex and convincing them to like you.
And the group stays with it for longer than I expected, although not so long as to beggar belief. Yates does a remarkable job of making it clear that all six of the game players have a streak that makes them the right sort for this game. Even Evelyn, who seems like the least willing to engage in the less salubrious levels of the game, also has the traits that make her clearly at least willing to engage.

At one point, a character calls this whole saga a sort of love story – “the curious, complex, ill-explored, secretive, unspoken and venomous love between men.” I had a friend like that. Had we known each other later in life, I dare say we might’ve ended up like Jolyon and Chad. Hard to say who would’ve won. Harder to say what it might’ve cost. And while it might be hardest to believe, it’s also the truest: games like this aren’t just the stuff of thrillers and friends can make the toughest competitors.

And as the game gets more serious and we start to put together pieces of the story from the present, looking back, things seem to expand out to another level altogether. And this is where things really get crazy.
Yes, there is a death involved. The front cover will tell you that, although it could be (successfully) argued that “five survivors” means several different things in this novel. But the craziness comes not from that tragedy but rather from the dissolution of this group of friends and the unwillingness to give in. They would rather lose the friendship than forfeit the game – and the mysterious figures of GameSoc seem to know that. A sense of menace looms over this whole thing, inexplicable and incomprehensible, and all fingers point to GameSoc. Who are they? Why did they back this game? And what, exactly, is being played here?
I won’t go into too much more, suffice to say that it wasn’t at all what I expected when the time came to start doling out proper reveals. I raced through the last hundred pages even faster than I had the previous ones, itching to know what was going to happen and what the ultimate end-game would look like. If Yates falters at all, it is only a half-step wrong near the end – one slightly-too-tidy wrap-up – and it doesn’t diminish the joys of the book one whit. Instead, one is left with the satisfying sensation of a truly thrilling thriller.

Rating: 5 out of 5. I just had a blast with this. It takes some of the best traits of stories like The Secret HistoryGone GirlThe Game, and stirs them all up into a speedball of thrill. This is a smart, gripping novel that not only delivers on plot but brings along memorable and genuine characters to boot. With every reveal, I was pulled deeper into the story and nearly every single one paid off with dividends. Christopher J. Yates has pulled off a masterful debut.

 

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3 comments

  1. Oh wow, your review has me super excited to pick up this book! I’m tired of the Gone Girl comparisons also, but I’m constantly trying to recreate the feeling I had after reading that. If this comes even remotely close, which it sounds like it will, I definitely want to jump on board. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention! – ashley

  2. Pingback: Fates and Furies | Raging Biblio-holism

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