Black Chalk, Christopher J. Yates’ debut novel published in the United Kingdom in 2013, becomes widely available in the United States as a Picador original on August 4. The novel, a psychological thriller is a compelling read for a good two thirds of the way, but unfortunately the payoff, when it finally comes in dribs and drabs, is disappointing. The journey, it turns out, is more interesting than the destination.
Six good friends, all having met in their first year of study at a prestigious English university, decide to take part in a strange game under the auspices of a secretive college organization, “Game Soc,” with a large monetary prize to the winner. The game, never really described in detail involves cards and dice, and dares and consequences for losers. Players remain in the game as long as they are willing to fulfill the consequences which are created by their fellows, presumably to take advantage of perceived personality weaknesses. As they play the stakes supposedly get higher and higher, so high that only five of the six survive (I don’t count this as a spoiler since it is announced on the book’s cover).
The six friends include Jollyon, seemingly a gregarious leader; Chad, an American naif studying abroad; Jack, a wisecracking loud mouth; Mark, a nerdy type who spends most of his time sleeping, and two young ladies. There is Emilia, a sincere beauty who excels at getting the group to act together, and Dee, a bleak young poet with a rebellious attitude. They are an odd mix, for the most part self-segregating themselves from the rest of their college community, but interesting enough individually and as a group to keep the reader’s attention at a high level for a goodly portion of the book.
The narrative runs on two tracks. There is a first person narrative by an unreliable narrator, a narrative that may well be contaminated by other voices, that takes place 14 years after the freshman year. This alternates with a third person narrative of the events surrounding that freshman year, presumably written by the first person, but also possibly corrupted by other hands. Everything the reader is told, everything about characters, everything about events and their meaning, then is open to question. Narrative truth is up for grabs, and that’s fine. Often unreliable narrators, when their narratives are affected by their character, make for great literature.
In Black Chalk, however, narrative revelations are often simply “gotcha” moments that make for less than organic twists and turns, the kinds of twists and turns that are the stuff of conventional thrillers. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if the first two thirds of the book hadn’t raised the reader’s expectations for something better, something less mechanical, less conventional.
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