Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genre: mystery, suspense, thriller
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Random House
Date Released: April 1, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
One game. Six students. Five survivors.
It was only ever meant to be a game.
A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, 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.
I’m tempted to start out by saying, “Shall we play a game?” where the time-honored response is from the movie War Games. Black Chalk is not about global thermonuclear war, but the results to the six players of “The Game” are every bit as shattering as war.
Perhaps a better analogy would be Truth or Consequences, except that in this particular game, the proper title would be Truth AND Consequences, because each consequence reveals yet more truth about the one suffering it.
Six students meet in their first year at Oxford; 5 Brits, 1 American on a one-year study-abroad fellowship. They spend their first term as the absolute best of friends, and the rest of the year as increasingly bitter and brutal rivals.
The simple answer is a game. In pursuit of a £10,000 prize, they invent a game that temporarily becomes their whole universe. While it appears on the surface to be a game of luck, in fact, it’s a game of mental manipulation. One they play against each other, and one that the prize committee is playing against them. Or perhaps it goes further up. That’s one of the mysteries.
What isn’t a mystery is what happens to the players. While they start out as friends, they are also fiercely competitive. They would have to be to get into Oxford University. Once the game starts, they all play to win. Some of them play to win at any cost.
Although the storyline is about the lives of the players as their friendship disintegrates and they self-destruct, the perspective is that of an unreliable narrator remembering his own misbegotten past. A past he sees through a glass not just very darkly, but with cracks.
We view the game through the lost memories of one of the players, a man who is now completely broken and trying to pull himself together for the final round of the game.
When the winner takes it all, what is it that he takes from the losers? And what has he lost in his own pursuit?
Escape Rating B+: As I read Black Chalk, it reminded me of The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson. It has some similar themes about the potentially all-encompassing nature of games, and the manipulative lengths that people will go to win them at all costs.
The reader of Black Chalk starts out the story not knowing which of the six players is narrating. And as the story progresses, even the narrator is not sure that he is totally responsible for the course of the story as he writes it. He is sure that others are adding material that he doesn’t remember writing, even if he does remember the experience.
As cracked as Jolyon’s perspective is, we’re not sure whether someone really is messing with him, or whether he is so broken that he doesn’t remember all the things he does. Probably both.
In reading Jolyon’s account, it’s difficult to decide whether the players are exactly likeable or not. When they were at Oxford, they were all young, seemingly invincible and felt somewhat entitled; not by money (at all) but by their intelligence. The shattered Jolyon of 14 years later is much less manipulative and much more sympathetic.
The ending is sly and subtle and hits like accidentally biting on a jalapeno pepper. It takes a minute for you to realize that your mouth, or brain, is on fire..
Chris and Random House are giving away a copy of Black Chalk to one lucky winner. It’s the winner’s choice of paperback or ebook, and this giveaway is open internationally!
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