A compulsively readable psychological thriller set in New York and at Oxford University in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic result
It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: The stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you? A gripping psychological thriller partly inspired by the author's own time at Oxford University, Black Chalk is perfect for fans of the high tension and expert pacing of The Secret History and The Bellwether Revivals. Christopher J. Yates' background in puzzle writing and setting can clearly be seen in the plotting of this clever, tricky book that will keep you guessing to the very end.
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By Christopher J. Yates
PicadorCopyright © 2013 Christopher J. Yates
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I(i) He phones early. England greets the world five hours ahead of us and I answer before my day has gained its groove.
Before long I have agreed to everything he says.
Don't worry, he says. I promise you, it'll be fun.
It'll be fun. Pause. Click.
Yes, that's what we said about the Game all those years ago. It'll be so much fun!
I hold the phone to my chest for some time after the call has ended. And then, crossing the room, I open my curtains for the first time in three years. Because now he has found me, tracked me down, and there remains no good reason to stay hidden any longer. For three cloistral years the quantity of time I have spent inside this apartment has averaged twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes each day. I am a hermit, as pale as my bones, as hairy as sackcloth. But now I intend to grow stronger. I must ready myself for the impending visit of the ancient friend.
Because the timing of the call was of course no coincidence. In five weeks' time, fourteen years to the day since last we saw each other, this hermit turns thirty-four. And let me state from the outset that, whether I win or lose, I hope this story will serve as my warning to the world. A cautionary tale. My confession.
I stand by my window staring out at the city. Everything is storm-light, the bruised palette of the sky. Manhattan, mid-April. Down below on Seventh wheels rush and slosh water to the sides of the road.
I push my forehead to the glass. If I am going to win, then before he arrives I must undergo a transformation. I will embark upon the journey of the recovering warrior, just like in the boxing movies. Months of hard work before the comeback fight, the washout trying manfully to resurrect his career. And from the hermit's chrysalis there will emerge a proud fighter. Except the strength I will need for the coming battle is all mental. I begin to wonder what might be the psychological training equivalent to sprinting up museum steps, pounding sides of beef with bare fists, quaffing raw eggs. I begin to hum inspirational music, I wave my fists feebly in the air.
Perhaps I could start out with a gentle stroll.
Yes, I'm going to do it, the hermit is going to go outside. And he may be some time.
* * *
I(ii) But I am sorry to report that I did not make it outside. The glasses stopped me, all six of them. Please believe me, I had absolutely no choice in the matter.
It surprises me every morning how much there is to remember, the fuss we must wade through before life becomes life. The eating and the drinking and the cleansing. The cleansing especially. Every day I question whether such cleansing has a purpose – for a hermit especially. But I have learned to trust my routines. When I lose trust in routines, bad things can happen.
I pick up a water glass and routine saves me again. Saves me from languishing in thoughts of the Game. Nudges me back to the present.
* * *
II(i) It had taken an act of immense bravery for Chad to befriend Jolyon.
Chad and the other Americans in the year-long programme had arrived in England a week before the British freshmen. At Pitt they called them freshers but at least the words were similar. Chad would have drilled into him far greater lexical oddities than this while studying at Oxford. (The cleaners they called scouts, the bills they called battels, the tests called collections ...)
And during that first lonely week, as was his habit, Chad failed to make friends with his countrymen, a habit that made him feel awkward and defective. There were six of them and they had been garrisoned together in a narrow terrace house a few streets below the river, a fifteen-minute walk from Pitt College.
Coming to Oxford was the número uno bravest thing Chad had ever done. And he had come for adventure, so he didn't see how spending time with his fellow Americans would benefit him. Because adventure wasn't a vain search for some decent frickin food in the city. Adventure wasn't a sweatshirt with your university name emblazoned proud and blue across the chest. And the truly adventurous surely had access to more than three adjectives when describing the architectural splendour that surrounded them. Cute, cool, awesome.
Around these Americans Chad knew he would never escape that part of himself from which he longed to break free. The shyness, the gulping and blushing and smiling at people when the more honest reply would be bullshit.
Although sometimes Chad wondered if his shyness was actually a secret defence mechanism, an evolved shield. Perhaps biting your tongue was the only thing that kept the worst parts of you hidden from the world. But what if shyness was simply a curse and in the world beyond his sealed lips a whole better life awaited him, the real Chad?
And so he resolved to act, to do something entirely un-Chad-like. He had pushed himself into adventure and now he needed to push himself just one more time. He would force himself to make friends with one British student at Pitt. Because any friendship was a path and paths always led elsewhere. To more paths and new places. Maybe even a better kind of life. And then, if he could only find a new world, Chad would skip down its lanes. Wherever they took him.
* * *
II(ii) Chad reasoned that freshmen would be the most open to new friendships. He should strike early on in the game before impenetrable circles and cabals began to form. This was a lesson learned from the errors Chad had made in his first year at Susan Leonard. A semi-lonely freshman, a barely social sophomore. He had hand-delivered the application to spend his junior year abroad on the day they began accepting submissions.
And so at the end of that first week in England, Chad spent two hours standing in the front quad of Pitt College. Two hours, and every minute becoming more forlorn, his temporary resolve dwindling by the second.
Yes, throughout those two hours a steady trail of freshmen did indeed appear. But they arrived not alone, not companionless as they had been imagined. Instead they came accompanied by coteries of parents. Proud, harbouring parents. Besuited parents. Parents swarming their beloved children and buzzing with manifest pride.
Over and over Chad watched the same routine unfolding. The freshman's first entrance through Pitt's front gate in the painfully assembled clothing that best summated his or her desired image. The ageing father's insistence upon carrying the heaviest loads. The mother's hand fluttering proudly upon her décolletage, resting only to stroke the stone or locket of her finest necklace. Then later the return from the freshman's room, their child's new home having been located and inspected and the luggage all unloaded. And finally the farewell. The freshman awaiting the moment when the final thin twine of umbilical cord would at last and forever be cut.
The arriving families would pause here and there as they made their first turns around the perfect lawn. Shoulders were squeezed. Fingers pointed out the Gothic glories of the college buildings, the gargoyles and the diamonds of lead that latticed the windows, the uneven staircases spiralling up from the squat arched doorways. Dark stone passageways that promised more of Pitt's pleasures beyond front quad. The gardens and their ancient tree with tired limbs held up on crutches. Back quad with its wilder lawn, its meadow airs. The thunk of mallets striking croquet balls. The shadow of the sandstone wall washing over the grass toward students sprawled around their books and drinks.
Pitt College had been founded in 1620, the very same year that the Mayflower had dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor. Chad would spend eight months in the city and the marvel of it all would never rub smooth.
But what was he to do? He couldn't approach an entire family. One human being at a time he found difficult enough.
And then just as Chad had accepted the abject failure of his plan, his ideal target had arrived. Alone. Male. Heavy bags. Yes yes yes.
Chad forced his legs to start moving before his mind could round on the plan.
Part one was simple, a greeting. And then Chad would ready himself for part two of the plan, to listen out for a name, to actually retain it – a vital stage of meeting people and a hurdle he usually failed to clear, his nerves like so much white noise. And then, part three, Chad would offer to help with the bags.
'Hi, I'm Chad,' said Chad.
The ideal target put down his bags. And then he looked up at Chad, his lips tight against his teeth, and said, 'Who on earth names their son after a Third World fucking country?'
* * *
III(i) Why did the presence of six water glasses prevent your narrator from enjoying a gentle stroll outside? Yes, I should explain. Rewind.
* * *
III(ii) When I turn away from the window, I see six glasses staring back at me from the floor of my apartment. As part of my routine, every night I place six water glasses very carefully in the middle of my living-room floor.
They make for an arresting image, six glasses arranged in two ranks of three. And this of course is the point of these glasses. To arrest me, to stop me on the spot. So I stand and I think and then I look up at the clock. Lunchtime. Seven hours have passed since the phone call. Which means I have lingered at the window all morning, the words of the phone call playing, rewinding and replaying in my head. And six glasses means I must not have not drunk any water today. Not one single drop.
It would seem that the phone call has already caused some considerable disruption to my routine.
Allow me to explain. Those six glasses are, to use a common phrase, an aide-memoire – although I prefer my own term, physical mnemonic. The physical imposition of the glasses helps me remember to drink six glasses of water a day. Because there was once an occasion, over a year ago now, when I forgot to drink any water at all. This liquid lapse continued for a dangerous length of time. The effects of dehydration, I soon discovered, can prove somewhat debilitating.
So now that the glasses have jolted my memory, I pick one up and head to the kitchen. Upon my arrival I see three plates lined up on the chequered linoleum floor. Which means I haven't yet eaten any breakfast. (Nor lunch nor dinner of course.)
Next I find that in the kitchen sink and hindering access to the faucet there sits an inverted salad bowl. With a Pavlovian twitch I glance down, whereupon I spy my genitals. Yes, I would appear to be entirely unclothed.
What ludicrous notion first caused me to make the mnemonic link between salad and genitals? Every morning I find the connection vaguely disturbing. I would like very much to change this memory prompt, I should replace the salad bowl with a heavy rolling pin or magnum of champagne. But alas, meddling with routines is a dangerous game.
I stand in the kitchen drinking my water, considering my limp lettuce nakedness for a short time, and then head to my bedroom. I leave the salad bowl and empty water glass on the bed. I find shorts and a T-shirt beneath my pillow.
Now clothed, I return to the kitchen. In the sink, and previously hidden by the inverted salad bowl, sits an old marmalade pot. So now I know what comes next. I go to the refrigerator for bread to make toast for my breakfast. But in the refrigerator there hangs a single red Christmas-tree bauble. Which means I haven't yet taken my morning pills. So I swallow my pills, put the bauble in the marmalade pot and slide the bread into the toaster. I open the cutlery drawer for a knife so I can spread peanut butter on my toast ... And staring up at me is a Halloween mask of the Wookiee Chewbacca from the Star Wars movies.
So I put on the Halloween mask with the elastic under my chin but the Wookiee's face atop my head, eye-holes pointing to the ceiling. (It might prove somewhat tricky for me to breakfast through Chewbacca's mouth-hole, so I wear him thusly.)
Hungrily I eat my toast and peanut butter. And then, when I finish, I turn on the shower. Which means I can now take off the Halloween mask, its purpose having been to remain uncomfortably on my head until I remember to turn on the shower. (Although what a hairy Wookiee has to do with cleanliness, I could not possibly say. Sometimes my mnemonics make sense, sometimes they do not. Often this is the result of what lay at hand when the need to place another element in my routine arose.)
So I shower, stumble across more mnemonics, drink another glass of water and read the newspaper (whose presence, outside my door, a pair of sunglasses dangling in the shower closet alerted me to). This all takes about two hours of my time. And then upon the completion of morning tasks, I sit down at my dining table on whose uncluttered surface there rest only three objects. My diary, whose last entry was written some fourteen years ago, my laptop and an old yellow tooth. The diary has been patiently awaiting this moment for some time, the moment at which I would begin telling my story, and I will open it soon. But first the tooth, an old molar that rests on top of my laptop. The tooth has become my lucky charm, a reminder that I cannot be beaten. So I pick up the tooth, hold it clenched in my fist and close my eyes. And feeling warmed by this mnemonic of strength, I open the computer to record the morning's events. But then I can't remember the order in which I just performed my morning tasks. (You might at this point be forgiven for making the following observation – it may require more than one gentle stroll to propel me back into the world of normality.)
I sigh an enormous sigh, leave my computer again and head to the bedroom once more where I stand, hands on hips, staring at my bed. Every night when I try to climb into bed, I find I cannot get under the covers because an assortment of glasses, plates, bowls and various other gimcracks and gewgaws block my way. And so every day ends with the same laborious task. Each night before sleep I move around the apartment carefully replacing all of my physical mnemonics in their correct positions to establish the next day's successful routine.
Today I rearrange my mnemonics early, taking notes as I go, so that I can type out for you the details of my morning routine. A morning routine that, today, failed to attain completion until gone three in the afternoon. Which means I now have to shift my afternoon routine to the evening and my evening routine close to bedtime. But never mind, I refuse to allow minor setbacks to hinder my recovery. And were it not for my ingenious system of physical mnemonics, nothing whatsoever would have been accomplished today.
All of this thinking about mnemonic ingenuity puts me in a delightful mood. Yes, my thoughts will be sharp once more. I will spend every day in training. Slowly I will regain my strength, the very best of my mind.
Suddenly my mood becomes so fresh, so clear, that something wonderful jumps right into my head, something I have been unable to recall for the last three years – the mnemonic significance of the salad bowl. Ha, no, not any sort of unkind reflection on the size or health of my genitals. Yes, something so obvious.
Dressing. Salad: dressing!
I have five weeks.
* * *
IV(i) Jolyon rubbed his bag-strangled hands. Yes, he was feeling crabby. But he was feeling crabby because several second-year students had been posted at Pitt's front lodge precisely for the purpose of helping freshers carry bags and find rooms. And two of them were currently assisting a boy whose entire bearing suggested he came from a life of perpetual privilege. The boy's father – Admiral? Lord? Sir? – had commandeered a luggage cart which was now piled high with enough bags for a maharaja. So in fact the second years were lolling behind carrying nothing at all. Instead they were listening politely to the boy's mother who was telling them about little Toby's recent summer, half of which had been spent gaining impossibly valuable work experience in the offices of the Foreign Secretary, a personal friend, and the other half in Argentina participating in a polo tournament.
Excerpted from Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Copyright © 2013 Christopher J. Yates. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story follows a group of college friends who begin a game of dares. A mysterious Society stakes the prize and establishes rules of its own. What begins as an entertaining, if incredibly naive pasttime, degenerates into a viciously competitive and cruel competition. As with any college group, friendships and trusts are sometimes strained, romances develop, and secrets are exposed. With the game as a chaotic background force, the normal drama of these young relationships is magnified in speed and intensity. The game takes over their lives, promising to make losers of all but one. The writing is excellent. While I usually have to look back to refresh my memory on certain characters, this book's portrayals are so clear and deep that its easy to keep characters and events straight. Even when I thought I had missed or forgotten something, the occasional reminders and spoken references kept me reading without having to search through earlier pages. I would recommend this novel for people who are interested in small group relationships, especially those of people of college age. It will also appeal to those interested in the conflict of our intentions and dreams versus those of our fellows.
The book is a novel that focuses on six freshmen at Oxford University (one of them is actually an American study abroad student) and a game of dares/consequences that they dream up. They get a mysterious "Game Society" to fund their cash prize and help establish the rules, and then they're off. Two boys emerge as the ringleaders, but almost all share some responsibility when one of the players dies. One of the strange things about this book is the way the dares are called "consequences", and I'd really argue that they should call them punishments. However, "consequences" does capture the inevitably of the players repeating the game over and over, unable to escape from the game in the same way you'll be unable to escape the book. The other five dream up the punishing "consequences" for each player, and if they fail to perform, they're out of the game. Yates does a masterful job of revealing each character's hidden weaknesses and strengths and the way they get through the game, which is amazing considering how ludicrous it is that anyone would play something so dangerous and manipulative at all. As you're reading it, you'll feel tense in sympathy for the characters, but also a degree of empathy. You'll think of the things you couldn't stand to be humiliated over, and this will keep you turning pages as well. The characters facing their fears become tokens for you, and you just hope that your favorite isn't the one to die.
I really liked the theme of the book; however, it was slow to start and difficult to follow. I didn't hate it but it did not live up to my expectations
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings 6 students who are all freshman at university and they decide to start a game with levels of consequences and as you know from the cover, one student will not make it to the end. Unfortunately, this book just didn't do it for me and I will tell you why. For a time, I wasn't sure which of the 6 students was narrating in the present part of the book and I didn't love it. As far as the format of the book - there are parts being narrated in the present and then the back story being told in chronological order. There are NO chapters per say and roman numerals all over the place and I couldn't quite get the gist of them. I would have preferred if in editing there had been something inserted to allow the reader greater ease as to know when it was present and when it was back during the freshman year.
This was a difficult book for me to read. Not because I don't enjoy dark, psychological thrillers, but because the tone was so heavy throughout the majority of the story, it almost became a chore to finish. The description caught my interest immediately - six best friends, implying they obviously know each other well, inventing dares that become more personal and humiliating throughout the game. Interesting concept, although none of the characters were particularly likable, making it nearly impossible to find anyone to cheer for. At the beginning, they seemed so young and naive, full of themselves, living in a bubble. It was hard to watch them spiral from friendship into what they eventually became, although the group dynamics were fascinating at times. It's very true that those closest to you can do the most damage. There were a couple of major twists in the book, one closer to the beginning and one near the end, that made the story more interesting, but I guessed them both ahead of time. The writing flowed pretty well, but with the narrative switching between first person to third person and present day to past, occasionally I wondered who was talking and in what year. I also struggled with the character development. The students all had their own distinct personalities established early on; however, it seemed as if they suddenly turned into someone else during the game, with no natural progression. In one paragraph they underwent an abrupt transformation into a different character. The explanation of who the three game "moderators" really were was completely unsatisfying and I just couldn't buy into it. Parts of this book were enjoyable and I'm glad I read it, but I felt as if some of the story line didn't play out as the author intended. This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.
When reading through the first few pages, I almost had to stop reading. I've become so accustomed to seeing double quotation marks when reading dialogue, that when it's just an apostrophe, I think it's a thought. Christopher Yates, author of Black Chalk, uses the single quotation mark as he's a British author, and page after page, I had to keep reminding myself that this is the right way in British English. But that wasn't the only immediate thing that made me stumble as a reader. There were no chapters. Instead there were roman numerals numbering each section of text. Sometimes it would be pages without another set, and sometimes it would just be a paragraph. Initially, I didn't know what these accomplished, but I figured out as I read more that it may have ben to help with the time lapses between scenes, as well as the time jumps between the past and the present. Regardless, it still confuses me and I fail to see the point. However, there were many promising things about this novel that I pushed through my personal roadblocks. The concept was one that was truly intriguing and something I haven't really read before. I was curious how the author was going to execute it, as the plot was bound to be complex. Unfortunately, I think it was too complex, even for the author to write. It was just too confusing, with the constant time jumps and the almost manic thoughts and actions of the narrator of the story. For the first half of the book, you think it's one character, and then the narrator himself says he's someone else. We don't really get into the meat of the story until more than half the book is already over, which is something that I thought was strange. The buildup to "The Game" was too much. By the time we figured out what was going on and what really happened, it was over-hyped and not as dramatic or shocking as it should have been. I was disappointed, as the story after this part became rather predictable. It was just a matter of time before certain things happened, and it was easy to see where everything would be falling into place. I liked the relationship between Jolyon and Chad. Jolyon was the leader of the group and turned out to be our narrator, while Chad was taken under Jolyon's wing and shown the ropes of social interaction. Over the course of the novel, the relationship between the two changes, and Chad is slowly becoming the top in the group, and the cracks in Jolyon's mind start to present themselves. The whole story centers around the relationship between these two men, and the other characters are almost just filler. We don't get to see them develop, and even with the scenes they are in, there is almost nothing to them to make them worthwhile. There's no depth, nothing that makes them stand out from the rest of the story. For the first half of the story, we get to see so far inside of Chad's mind, that we automatically assume that he must be the narrator and the changes we see in him aren't that good. He goes from being the quiet, sweet, nice guy to a twisted, sadistic person who doesn't care who he hurts. And as for Jolyon, we see what has become of him after the game and how those little cracks in the beginning have affected his life after the "end" of the first Game. I don't know if this is going to be continued into a series, but the way the story ended was anything but answered. Chad runs off, leaving his family and commitments that he made to "The Game," while we are left with Jolyon still struggling to recover his mind and rejoin society. We don't know what the role of the Game Society was, let alone who they are, and what they want now that the game is over. I feel like as soon as we learned what happened during "The Game" and what it actually was, the story was over. WE don't know what really happened to Jack and Emilia, other than they are married. There's just so much unexplained, which would make sense for a follow-up story, but I feel like we didn't get enough information through the story to warrant wanting to go further in the series.