Book: Black Chalk
Author: Christopher J. Yates
A compulsively readable psychological thriller set in New York and at Oxford University in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic result
It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: The stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you? A gripping psychological thriller partly inspired by the author’s own time at Oxford University, Black Chalk is perfect for fans of the high tension and expert pacing of The Secret History and The Bellwether Revivals. Christopher J. Yates’ background in puzzle writing and setting can clearly be seen in the plotting of this clever, tricky book that will keep you guessing to the very end.
Comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History are apt, given the tight-knit group of college friends bound by a secret. I’d also say the game elements reminded me of Will Lavender’s books, Obedience and Dominance, though I vastly preferred Black Chalk.
The narrator is brutally unreliable, suffering from alcoholism and pill addiction. I just finished The Girl on the Train last week, so there were echoes of that (helped by a partial British university setting).
Initially, I found it incredibly difficult to get into the writing style. We’re taken through both the events at the University, leading up to and including the game, as well as the narrator’s current life in New York. The alternating of time and place can be jarring, especially with both stories told in present tense. Part of this may be due to the formatting of the galley text, so readers of the paperback version may not suffer the same confusion.
About a fifth of the way in, though, with all the cast of characters assembled and role established, I was hooked. Yates excels at characterization and voice, and once he hits his stride the novel really picks up steam. When things start to fall apart for each character, they are stripped to their basest layers, and the ensuing destruction is terrifying and beautiful.
Fans of academic settings, unreliable narrators, and solid suspense will enjoy this read!