Six students, newly arrived at Oxford University and only just beginning to get to know one another, sign up with the Game Soc at the Freshers Fair. The Society’s conveners – Tallest, Middle and Shortest – are not easy to impress but listening to the over-excited pitch of Jack, Jolyon and Chad they recognise the hint of potential in what becomes known as The Game. Rules are laid down, rich deposits exchange hands and, within a few weeks, an elaborate game of consequences takes shape. Three pots contain consequences, or dares, of varying degrees, beginning with the trivial albeit embarrassing but soon becoming much more humiliating. The fact that The Game is played out at the same time as the six students form their relationships with one another creates complications that could last a lifetime.
Black Chalk is a moody, twisty novel of intrigue, a puzzle in its own right as befits a thriller about a manipulative game. As a result of that, I don’t want to tell you much about it at all because you need to follow the clues yourself and enjoy the moments of revelation and surprise. Those moments, though, are well-matched by increasing shadows and closing-in walls.
The thriller succeeds for a number of reasons, not least because of the plotting, but also because of the strength of the characters who play the game, especially Jolyon, Chad, Mark and Jack. The female players, Dee and Emilia, play more of a supportive role – to the novel and to the boys – and so are overshadowed by the male figures. Jolyon and Chad, in particular, are fascinating but to find out why you must read the book. Tallest, Middle and Shortest have an intriguing role throughout even while the humour of the novel reminds us of characters in a Monty Python sketch. This mix of humour and menace is very successfully balanced in Black Chalk. These are undergraduates after all and it is supposed to be just a game. If only people weren’t so complicated and vulnerable if the right – or wrong – button is pressed.
The novel has more than one voice. It is told in the third person and in the first. It is also set in the present and in the past. This is an extremely interesting structure, made more so by the unreliability of the narrator and for the strangeness of the surroundings that we are placed in. The story moves between the familiar and the rather surreal and I think this is well done.
As an Oxfordian born and bred, I usually avoid novels set in Oxford. When you know a town as well as I do Oxford, there’s a strong chance of being thrown out of the novel by a street put out of place. Black Chalk compounds this risk because it is about Oxford University which I am also very familiar with. As with Morse and Lewis stories, a college is created for the story, Pitt College, and I think this helps to give the novel its own authenticity and identity. Anything is possible in Oxford, it’s an unusual place, and so when I read parts of Black Chalk I actually thought that it could have gone further. Oxford itself isn’t a forceful presence. The novel could have been set in any University town and that did help me focus on what matters here, The Game and its players.
I enjoyed Black Chalk very much and found it hard to put down. However, I did find some of the earlier scenes slightly juvenile, which I suppose is inevitable in a novel about students (I do remember being one, after all), and I would have liked to have discovered more about the Game Soc. The menace for me was in the relationships between the students and not in the sinister omnipresent Game Soc. But, while I felt that Black Chalk could have gone further, I found it to be an extremely entertaining and very fast, well-written and ingenious thriller. It kept me up at night, always a good sign. More remarkably, it’s a debut novel by Christopher J. Yates and that signifies that there is much to come and I look forward to it!