Part psychological game narrative with lashings of unreliability, part Secret History, and part all novels set at Oxford, Black Chalk is a tense and enjoyable book from my favourite subgenre, ‘group of friends in a closed off/privileged/academic setting Do Bad Things’. Six friends at Oxford University invent a game, a game for only six players that will span longer than just a few hours. Each week they must meet, play, and be given consequences, forfeits they must fulfil so as not to lose the game. As these get more humiliating and personal, it becomes clear it isn’t a game at all. And fourteen years later, the game still isn’t quite over.
Yates combines a plot that shows the underlying nastiness of people with a complex narrative structure, in which the story is being told but maybe not reliably, and maybe not just by who you think. This gives the tension an extra level, though the story isn’t as full of twists as might be assumed. As a literary thriller (and with characters falling into their own stereotypes), it can be possible to predict, but that doesn’t feel like a problem. In some ways, its similarity to The Secret History—in terms of psychological games, guilt, and narrators painting themselves in certain ways—defines it even though it is quite different, far more based around the tension of the game and an unfolding dual narrative than the kind of aesthetics and academia of Tartt’s novel. Its psychological element is probably one of its best traits, with a student game about humiliation slipping into something else.
Yates invents a kind of mirror Oxford, with fake colleges and streets and details changed or stolen, and in some ways the narrative involves a kind of mirror sense, of what happened to the characters and how they changed due to the game, how they might’ve been different without it. Black Chalk doesn’t always quite live up to its promise, but it is a gripping and atmospheric book that manages to combine a narrator with a questionable grip on reality with a tale of student recklessness and human darkness.