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.
The concept behind Black Chalk grabbed me right from the get-go. The idea of an innocent game evolving into something more sinister and the effect that would have on its participants seemed both intriguing and tragically realistic. The ‘winner’ stands to walk away with a sizeable prize – not just the stakes of their fellow players, but a considerable sum added to the pot by the mysterious Game Society, provided the players promise to keep the Game and the Game Soc private.
And now, after living with the game hanging over their heads for fourteen years, the remaining players must meet up for their final round, and who knows better than your best friends what will break you? As the story develops, one is forced to wonder whether it’s possible to ‘win’ the Game. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is to survive it.
The novel begins in the aftermath of the Game, and we can immediately see the devastating psychological effects on the narrator, who now lives a hermit’s existance, trapped by a complicated web of OCD routines and guilt over the Game. The story of the formation of the friendship group and the birth of the game is told through flashbacks interspersed through present day scenes. I did find this slightly disorientating initially, as the current day is in the first person, whilst the flashbacks are in the third person, and it is not apparent for quite some time which player our narrator is. This turns out to be an intentional twist by the author, and as the novel progresses it works very well indeed.
Psychologically, this book is utterly incredible. Each of the 6 players has their own issues and Achilles heel before the Game even begins, and as the Game progresses we can see the differing effects of stress on each individual as they struggle to deal with the humiliating consequences and are lead deeper and deeper into the pitfalls of both pride and revenge.
Unbelievably, this is Christopher Yates’ debut novel. It is dark, disturbing and compelling, contains sneaky plot-twists and the characterisation is magnificent. In short, it’s ingenious.
Disclaimer: I was sent an ecopy of Black Chalk by NetGalley for the purposes of this review, but the opinions given are, as always, entirely my own.