"Black Chalk" by Christopher J. Yates
Review written by Diana Iozzia
“Black Chalk” is an honest and interesting portrayal of the dynamic in a friendship group. There are two different narratives in the story, told in the past and present. At Oxford University, there are six friends, Chad, Jolyon, Emilia, Dee, Mark, and Jack, who become involved in a game of dares and consequences. They realize that as they continue playing, the stakes grow higher and the animosity grows between them.
The book is advertised as “six strangers, five survivors”, so instantly, the suspense grows to see who will not survive. Survive as in death or survive as in staying in the game? Unfortunately, you find out in the last two chapters, so the suspense has died over the length of the book. I have lots of praise and lots of dismay for this book.
The two narratives are told very separately. One is a written story by the character, Jolyon. The second narrative is from his perspective. We learn this early in the book, however, I interpreted that Chad was the main character, but over time, you realize that Jolyon’s story is not reliable. Jolyon was tormented by the past and his own dementia, so it makes for an interesting and unreliable narration.
The characters in this book are very likeable, and are relatable. The friendship dynamic reminds me of the ones in “A Beautiful Mind” and especially “The Dead Poet’s Society”, perhaps further exemplified by the school campus setting. I really enjoyed the characters, Jolyon and Chad, for their friendship. They start out as strangers, Chad on a study abroad, the American in England cliché. They connect very well and quickly, which causes some rivalry. In addition, I like that this book is contemporary, but it’s not telling of the times. It could have taken place last year or ten years ago. The characters are not dated by their music, art, or film tastes, like many books I have read before.
Naturally, I must address the faults I found. As interesting as the characters were, I do feel that six characters was too many. I feel that there could have been only five, that Mark and Jack were very similar and not fleshed out enough to be two separate characters. In addition, the “game” that they actually play does include dares and consequences, but the actual dice/cards/cups gameplay is confusing.
In addition, Jolyon’s perspective was muddled and confusing. He leaves notes and creates mnemonic devices for himself. We see him fourteen years later, but he acts as if he is a completely different character. The Jolyon we loved and admired is now a shell of the person he was. I understand that the events of the book have changed him, however, there isn’t a glimmer of the character we loved, so it’s hard to sympathize with him later down the line. We’re supposed to care about this poor man, but we don’t. He’s just a weird, old man. We eventually find out why, but it’s past the point of no return, where we don’t feel badly that we don’t sympathize with him.
Lastly, the game of dares is supposed to be scary, embarrassing, and overwhelming, but we hardly read about any of the dares that were completed. We mostly heard the characters talk them after the fact.
I did thoroughly enjoy this, it just seemed less exciting and thrilling than I hoped it to be. It was a bit slow, but it was well written. I would recommend it, but I just don’t want anyone getting their hopes up that this is as good as the next Stephen King bestseller or the next “Gone Girl”. It’s thrilling, but only about a quarter of the time.