Black Chalk: A Review

Over the summer holidays, York Vision received a mysteriously titled debut novel from a former newspaper puzzle editor, courtesy of Vintage books at Random House. Christopher Yates’s Black Chalk narrates the progression of a game of forfeits undertaken by six unsuspecting freshers at Oxford University, a game which is fated to torment and destroy its participants. The book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in numerous reviews.

Enter the disturbing psyches of six students, a clique who bitterly count themselves as the bottom of the social heap amongst the elite of Oxford: an orphan, a pig farmer’s son, a Physics protégée, a miner’s daughter, a joker and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, a boy who hides his obsessive compulsive disorder and reliance on mnemonics behind cool, approachable charisma – all cursed with a debilitating desire to win.

Small chips off the shoulder swiftly turn poisonous as they are pitted against each other and become the puppets of the mysterious ‘Game Soc’ they encounter at Fresher’s Fair. Financial rewards matter little besides the dark psychological stakes engineered by this unfathomable old boy’s club. The Game is certainly not so jolly as the Bullingdon Club or the champagne and coke parties favoured by the less imaginative secret societies Yates alludes to – Game Soc offers either the ultimate power trip or ultimate ruin.

Yates also skilfully manipulates you, the reader, from the very start, concealing the identity of the narrator at first, and throwing you into constant doubt as to whether the entries which comprise the story are written by the same person, or whether others have infiltrated the account of the game as presented. Who is the ultimate game maker? You might never know.

Read for a vision of the dark underbelly of one of Britain’s most famed universities – a must for any fresher, student, or postgrad at any university. Choose your friends carefully, and pick out your extracurricular activities wisely…