Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates

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Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: One occasion where the fancy structuralising of the novelist actually pays dividends in keeping the reader ever-so-slightly off-balance as to who to trust, who to believe, who (indeed) they are actually listening to. Six students start a game, which edges ever closer towards a nightmare...but then halts as they leave university to go their separate ways. Or does it? Amusing, sharply observed, and a page-turning read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 343 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099581628

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I think I have finally understood why it is that over the last few years, authors have increasingly insisted on non-linear structures for their novels. It is a deliberate and possibly conscious ploy to try to make them un-filmable. The Hollywood rights are certainly lucrative, but if my theory doesn't leak like the Jumblies' boat then our complex-structure-loving writers are not just being too clever for their own good, they are trying to be true to the great works of literature that they aspire to emulate.

One of the characters in Yates' Black Chalk says I write not because I want to sell, but because I want to be loved. I want to be wholly adored. This touch of self-analysis has followed on from the sharp observation that People might LIKE populist books very much, but they don't ADORE them, they don't suck them down into their souls.

And that is probably the point about film adaptations. Even the great novels are not ADORED in adaptation the way they are when absorbed slowly and secretively from the page.

Well, that's my theory.

Of course, another reason why Yates might have chosen to tell the story the way he has is because it wouldn't be half so riveting any other way.

The whole story is a series of sleight of hand manoeuvres. Played with lesser skill it might have rendered the whole too irritating to care to finish. Instead, it works brilliantly. There is a slow building of distrust. How much can we believe of what we're being told, when it seems that the narrator doesn't always believe it himself?

Fourteen years ago, an American arrived at Pitt College in Oxford. Something of a social misfit, this time he was determined to do it differently. And so Chad meets Jolyon and soon a core clique has gathered. Six students, all of whom feel themselves some way set apart from the normal Oxbridge crowd. This draws them closer together. Until, that its, the Game gets in the way.

It started as a game. It was meant to be fun. It was just a game of consequences. Cards were involved and so were dice, but they were just the paraphernalia. The point of the game was the consequence, the forfeit. Nothing dangerous, nothing illegal, just something humiliating.

And just to make it interesting there'd be a stake and a prize. Winner takes all.

The winner being the last man standing: the one who could bear more personal humiliation than all the others.

Shame and humiliation it turns out are more dangerous that our students ever imagined. Not everyone survived.

There's been something of an interlude, fourteen years (almost to the day) and now the remaining players are converging. The game isn't over until it's over, however long it takes.

Our narrator, living a hermit's existence in New York, reliant on visual props and routines to get through the day receives a phone call and knows that he cannot escape what's coming – and so he has to try to pull himself together. Like a boxer making one last come-back fight, he has to train, he has to step outside his apartment, further than the corner shop, further than he has been in a long time. But it's not as easy as that.

As he starts to document the present, he also starts to write about the past. Or someone does.

The cover blurb speaks of collegiate gothic and it's apt. Comparisons have been made with Tartt's Secret History – the Turning of the Screw may be closer to the mark.

As the story-teller starts to leave his apartment, we learn the full history of what happened back in Oxford: how the game started, and what it led to, and who quit and who failed and who did not survive.

Then there are asides – other bits of narrative, whose place in the chronology is uncertain.

It might not be as completely unpredictable as Yates would have hoped, but it is sufficiently so to keep the reader off-balance for most of the ride. Full of dark and disturbed characters it fizzles with off-beat humour that parodies the student life that I recall watching from the sidelines (not that I ever went to Oxford!). The really frightening thing is that anyone who has been to an English university and watched students at close quarters for more than a few weeks, would have no difficulty believing that it is all entirely plausible.

Black Chalk isn't the kind of great literature that you will suck down into your soul, but I found that it did haunt my thoughts for days after finishing it. Then again, I quite liked the poems... which I'm guessing we weren't supposed to. This is one that should not be filmed. Any attempt to capture the sinister uncertainty of the text is doomed to failure.

Read it.

For more university town malfeasance we can recommendDead Scared by S J Bolton - just to prove that Oxford doesn't have the monopoly. If you were looking for a different Black Chalk, might it have been Black Chalk by Albert Alla?

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