“It was only ever meant to be a game.” This succinct phrase summarises the premise of Black Chalk, whilst hinting at its complex, ingenious and thrilling story. Christopher J. Yates layers six distinct characters, over two periods of time, in a mystery that is woven between a retelling of a single year and the inner ramblings of an unknown narrator who has quite possibly gone mad.
Black Chalk is a dark and thrilling novel, which you can easily pick up and read from start to finish. It is a tale of best friends, students of Oxford University, who take youthful banter and dares to psychologically dangerous levels.
Though it never purposefully conceals truths or claims to be smarter than the reader, the seamless movement back and forth between the present and past allows glimpses and hints of what’s to come as the Game is revealed and assumptions are questioned. The effects change the innocent players who arrive at the school into the scorched and rounded-out adults they’ll become.
Yates writes with an intelligent vocabulary that captures the voices of smart, Oxford students without crossing over into the unreadable. Each of the six main characters has their own distinct voice and believable moral traits when it comes to defining what their pride is worth. They appear fully formed, allowing for snappy dialogue and evocative descriptions, and thus making Black Chalk such an accessible read.
Characters are tested and judged, laughed with and laughed at, they’re even allowed to keep secrets and lie by omission. Exposed and scattered, you won’t be able to tell if anyone is really victorious in the end or if the Game was even worth starting. Expectations and ideas of who these people are will be formed, only for readers to ultimately question every truth as the secret nature of the Game is revealed and they’re led down a dark path exploring loyalty, innocence, shame and revenge.
Black Chalk is must read for those who love to delve into psychological thrillers and well thought out mysteries. You’ll be intrigued by the characters, even if you can’t bring yourself to love any of them. They’re all flawed, but this novel isn’t.