Lead Review

  • Book: Black Chalk
  • Location: New York City (NYC), Oxford
  • Author: Christopher J Yates

Location

Content

A novel for the turn of the 21st century – power, determination and gullibility. Chad, an American, arrives at Pitt College, Oxford (built in 1620 with requisite Gothic glories of architecture) to study for a year, and his first encounter with freshman Jolyon is to have longlasting consequences. Chad is desperate to insinuate himself into college life and become part of a clique, to become part of the establishment. Under the auspices of Game Soc the two of them are the instigators of what turns out to be a 14 year game.
Hapless alumni are picked up on the way until there are six of them prepared to invest financially, the winner takes all. But this is not a game of tiddlywinks, this is a game that starts off innocuously but soon revs up a gear, and the challenges set for each individual become more demanding.

That was then; now, 14 years later there is a narrator, a hermit, living on the Lower East Side, whose identity is soon revealed. The only way he (clue!) can control his life is by constructing mnemonics, whisky glasses have to be placed just so for the pills he has take, little devices are constructed to remind him to eat and drink – control is slewed, and life without control is no life at all.

Hapless alumni are picked up on the way until there are six of them prepared to invest financially, the winner takes all. But this is not a game of tiddlywinks, this is a game that starts off innocuously but soon revs up a gear, and the challenges set for each individual become more demanding.

That was then; now, 14 years later there is a narrator, a hermit, living on the Lower East Side, whose identity is soon revealed. The only way he (clue!) can control his life is by constructing mnemonics, whisky glasses have to be placed just so for the pills he has take, little devices are constructed to remind him to eat and drink – control is slewed, and life without control is no life at all.
This is indeed a story of control, how we each need it, and how it is always a knife-edge thing whether and when it becomes harmful to others. Are the members of Game Soc, to wit Tallest, Middle or Smallest running the game as they supervise the course it takes, or is it Jolyon, or Chad, or ultimately Jack, or Mark who really has the real insidious control over others? The two women Dee and Emilia appear more phlegmatic, but are they? We all know things are going to escalate when Middle says: “Get out clean, get out early because the longer you stay in, the more dangerous things become.” The pathos mounts.

A tactical plot, as strategic as a game of chess. Transfer the interactions to a world stage and you can see why the world has its problems.

The book is beautifully set against two iconic backgrounds: Oxford University and New York City. I loved the clarity with which Oxford University life is portrayed, how the groups of students bond together early in the term, the class issues that pervade the university culture are always present – it is clear that the author must have experienced some of what he describes in this book himself as he really brings the setting to life: “Living in Oxford was like living submerged in an ocean of Oscar Wildes”. Too true! And in New York, the narrator is living in an apartment in the East Village “…what a city of light and shadows New York becomes when the sun beats down and the tall buildings toss out their cool grey capes”. Perfect!
Well-written, with an unusual structure – each section is numbered with progressive Roman Numerals, heading towards D (500), a significant number for one of the group; it is like a counter – a time-bomb – ticking away towards some kind of game conclusion.

Ultimately this is the kind of book that tenaciously tugs at the reader’s consciousness, it challenges you to continue to read it. And yet, although it will no doubt go on to lurk in the deeper recesses of my mind (and comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Donna Tartt’s the Secret History) I struggled to really enjoy it. The control within the book hooked me in with its tenacious tendrils, urging me to read it (which, actually is a tremendous feat by the author!). The characters essentially left me rather cold, rather frustrated with their blithe commitment to the ‘friendship group’ and ultimately the game. And the back and forth between the narrator of now, and the game of then didn’t really coalesce. But I guess if you are fond of games of chance, murky psyches and you are prepared to take the consequences of drawing the Ace of Spades, then this may well be an ideal read for you.
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