Book Review: Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

 ‘One game. Six students. Five survivors’. The chilling presentation of this caption on Black Chalk beautifully framed the novel for debuting author Christopher J. Yates.

Set in the 1990s, the novel follows a group of six students in their fresher year at Oxford University. The group becomes involved in the Game; a last-man-standing competition of psychological dares with the prize of £10,000. And, as the year passes, the Game turns sour – it is only a matter of time before the events of the past re-emerge to haunt the present.

The novel is written between an anonymous first-person present and a third-person recollection of the past. This made the opening intriguing as I was forced to constantly question who I felt the first-person was in relation to the third-person past.  Also by doing so, I could relate personally on the events through the views of the haunted present individual.

The past focused on the two main characters, Jolyon and Chad, both of whom are likeable; Joylon, the confident leader and Chad, the nervous exchange student. Their friendship felt realistic and therefore enjoyable to read. This being said however when the friendship group grew Yates began defaulting to certain student stereotypes, which I found somewhat hard to believable in comparison. The novel also set these characters up loosely, it not until the beginning of the Game that Yates really fleshed out each member individually.

Their friendship felt realistic and therefore enjoyable to read.

The method of playing the Game itself was never fully explained in the entire novel, merely implied as an amalgamation of classic board games. However this did show elegance to the narrative as I realised it was not about how the Game was played, but why the Game was being played. The loser of each round has to perform psychological tasks devised to humiliate them which, although start small progressively darken. This I found was what I was, rather disturbingly, most engaged by.

It was captivating the way certain challenges were designed to target character’s beliefs and insecurities.  As time passed, the friendships deteriorated as they realised that the Game soon sacrifice their individuality. This means that I, and likely most readers, will project onto certain situations. Would you purposively sabotage a fellow student’s enjoyment? Or drunkenly deliver a speech to the board? How far would you go to fit in?

 Frustratingly hard to put down.

Yates is a clever writer, carefully disguising narrative twists which left me shocked. Whilst at times I predicted or sensed the oncoming of some of these, most readers will find themselves captivated by at least one of the key plot developments.

However it was also this factor which I found to be the novel’s greatest weakness. It was too reliant on these moments, meaning that time building up to them was filled with dull writing. Moreover I found it frustrating the purposeful intention to manipulate the plot just to fit these big shock moments. It sacrificed the realistic nature which Yates was undeniable trying to show.

Black Chalk was worth reading, the intriguing concept alone making it worth recommendation. The Game was a fantastic premise, and as a result I found it frustratingly hard to put down until certain resolutions were concluded. Whilst the alternating narrative phrases were at times confusing, it is the discovery of the past through the eyes of the tormented narrator which is where most sympathies will fall.

Ultimately however, once I closed the final page I realised the novel had no real merit bar the premise itself. The novel was a standard student fiction read, and having no mystery left in the plot; it is merely to become another book on my shelf.

James Hamilton

Star Rating 2.5

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