Title: Black Chalk
Author: Christopher J. Yates
Genre: Psychological thriller, adult fiction
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One game. Six students. Five survivors.
It was only ever meant to be a game.
A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, 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.
When I read the blurb, I was expecting something à la Lord of the Flies - a group of ordinary young people who discover their darker natures when pitted against one another. The description promises a game that "[evolves] into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results", but that's really not what you get. This book is about six friends playing a peculiar game, yes, but it's far more tame than the book description leads you to believe. Yes, there are consequences, and one in particular is truly awful, but even that is not as shocking or twisted as you'd expect.
I was expecting to enjoy this book, but everything was just a bit off. It might sit better with other people, so I'll do my best to review it fairly so other people can decide for themselves if this is worth a shot.
Black Chalk is the story of six friends going to University in England. The two main characters are Jollyon and Chuck - they say opposites attract, and their friendship is truly one of opposites. Jollyon is the magnetic one that everyone wants to be around, while Chuck is the easily forgotten American. Somehow their friendship clicks, and then they have the bright idea of playing a game of psychological dares with a huge monetary prize for the winner. The problem is that no one has the funds to back up this game, so Jollyon and Chuck pitch their idea to Games Club. The mysterious club agrees to help, and the game is launched.
The story alternates between past and present, showing you the innocent beginnings of the game and the consequences over a decade later. I liked this alternating storyline, and the unreliable narrator made the first half an interesting puzzle - figuring out who the narrator is and why he ends up as he does is pretty intriguing. The second half of the book was just not that exciting. Most of the characters seemed flat, and the game itself was not as intense or twisted as I was expecting. Even the explanation for the narrator's current condition was watered down. The second half also hints that the game is not over, and that there is still one last order of business to attend to. This part was clever, but again not as intense as I was expecting. The winner's "victory" was pretty ironic, which I appreciated. I thought the "big reveal" about the nature of the club and the game was strange and I just really wasn't satisfied with any of the explanations. When you bring up a conspiracy, it had better be a good one, and well, this one just wasn't.
One of my pet peeves is novelists sticking mediocre poetry into their novels in the guise of "look at my character's beautiful poetry!" This book's title derives from one such poem, and I didn't like the poetry in this novel at all. Sometimes it works, but not here.
I had middling feelings about this book - it doesn't deliver on its promises, but it's not horrible either. If you are interested in psychological manipulation and unreliable narrators, you might enjoy this.
*A free copy if this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*