Puzzle compiler isn’t a profession you’ll see on many author’s CVs, but Christopher J Yates’ début Black Chalk shows what perfect preparation it is for twisting readers in knots. This fiendishly clever book follows six students at the fictional Pitt College in Oxford during the 1990s, adjusting to the ego bruising experience of going from smartest kids in school to middling intellectuals in waiting surrounded by much sharper minds.
Lead by American ex-country boy Chad and the gloriously effete Brit Jolyon the group decide to play a game, an initially simple and frivolous one with forfeits served to the loser of each round. It needs to be worthwhile though, these are competitive people, and a large cash pot is provided by the shadowy Game Soc, three older students who are initially treated as laughable weirdos, until the true depth of their involvement emerges.
What starts out as harmless fun quickly escalates into all out psychological warfare. The group dynamics shift, personal relationships lead to destructive alliances and real world betrayals, both romantic and plutonic, which feed back into the game. The forfeits evolve from sniggering, childlike dares to acts of downright sadism, with the players ruthlessly exploiting their growing intimacy to find the soft spots in each others defences.
The parallel narrative skips neatly between the groups time at Pitt College, teasing out the development of the game, and modern day New York where Jolyon is now holed up in his apartment, enduring a hermetic existence structured around a series of OCD rituals; something which seemed like a charming affectation at university now signalling the true scale of his psychological trauma. Quite early on we know that the game has proved destructive but we don’t know who is the victim and who the aggressor and Yates skilfully manipulates our impressions of the players, ensuring that just as you get a handle on events another move is made and you’re back to square one, questioning everything you thought you knew. Yates is definitely not a man you’d want to play chess with.
Although the entire cast is well drawn and completely credible Jolyon steals the book. Quintessentially English, with a distinctly Waughian vibe, he’s the man everyone wants to impress at college, foppish but effortlessly clever, dripping with charisma, the perfect foil for the seemingly plodding Chad, who arrives at Oxford yearning to be part of the world Jolyon represents, and the increasingly toxic nature of their friendship is driving force behind much of the action.
Black Chalk is a tremendously enjoyable novel, elegantly constructed, with lots of mini-twists and cliffhanger chapter endings, so that it is near impossible to put down. Yates writes with confidence and great flair, his prose is crisp, his characterisation beady-eyed, and there is a delightful fizzy wit running through the book. Definitely a writer to watch.