When you make friends at a young age, the bonds that are formed seem unbreakable. Often, they are – I’m fortunate to have a handful of friendships that go back more than 20 years, so those seem pretty solid. But for every one of those there are many others that were forged, burned white hot for a while, and have since faded away. Some failed because of distance, while others failed because of circumstance. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned time and time again that bonds that appeared to be invincible were actually far from it.
Black Chalk, the suspenseful debut novel of Christopher J. Yates, tells the story of six students who form a tight-knit group during their early days in college. It’s the kind of group we all at times either belonged to or wished we belonged to. It’s a group that has struck the perfect balance of personalities, forming an instant kinship that is impenetrable and accepting at the same time.
And then, with the introduction of a seemingly innocuous game, Yates makes us watch as the group systematically rips itself apart.
The game itself is barely discussed in the book; there are vague mentions of dice and cards and a complicated scoring system. But it’s not really the game that matters – it’s the consequences, a set of individualized punishments designed by the players to provide escalating levels of discomfort and embarrassment to their opponents. The more the friends get to know about each other, the more personal and vicious the consequences become, and it isn’t long before things go sideways.
Some of the group members come across as little more than stock players – the class clown, the girl who expresses her disdain for the mainstream through unconventional dress and reams of poetry - but the two young men at the heart of the game, Jolyon and Chad, are fully fleshed out. Chad is a young American who takes the opportunity to study abroad, hoping for some kind of jolt that will change his life and direction. As for Jolyon – well, there’s a guy like Jolyon on every college campus in the world. He’s the guy that knows everybody, and that everybody wants to know. While he’s the life of any party he attends (and he’s invited to them all), he’s always got a core group that revolves around him. Jolyon arrives at school at the same time as Chad and quickly sucks the young American into his orbit. Their relationship may be the strongest among the six core group members; consequently, it’s the unraveling of that relationship that causes the most damage.
Yates takes his time telling his story, letting us get to know the group, taking us through the early stages of the game, and injecting some mystery early on with the introduction of a strange trio who call themselves “Game Soc.” “Game Soc” present themselves as financial backers and unobtrusive observers, but as the game wears on its clear that they have a more vested, if closely guarded, interest in the proceedings. There’s a lot of misdirection early on, especially when it comes to the identity of the narrator of this story. Yates juggles the transition from past to present well, arranging his puzzle pieces in ways that constantly hook and re-hook the reader.
My only major complaint about the book has nothing to do with Yates, but instead has to be laid at the feet of the publisher. There’s a major spoiler spelled out in bright white letters on the cover, and while I understand its existence as a marketing tool, it strikes me as a bit of an insult to author and reader alike. The copy on the back cover does a great job of laying out the premise without giving anything away – it’s a shame they couldn’t have come up with something equally enticing but less revealing for the front.
I’d say Yates has made a nice debut with the Black Chalk, and has definitely announced himself as an author to watch closely in the future.