Read This: Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates (Picador, August 4th, 2013) – Six friends. One year. A game that never should have ended the way it did.

What started as a game of embarrassing consequences between six freshmen at Oxford University quickly spun out of their control. The dares became utterly mortifying, laying waste to their relationships, alienating them from their peers, until the game took a deadly turn. Fourteen years later, it’s time to finish the game and declare a winner.

The story of the game unravels in Black Chalk, related to us by Jolyon, one of the players. It starts innocently enough, with Jolyon and two friends wandering through a sort of recruitment fair put on by the different societies at Pitt, the college they’re enrolled in. They stumble on Game Soc, and by the end of the fair, the three of them have outlined their game and won the attention – and seed money – of Game Soc. The first consequences are humiliating but harmless, messing with another student while he plays a quiz game, being forced to wear a school scarf for a day.

The farther Jolyon gets into his retelling, though, the more unreliable he becomes. He lives his life by his routines, and if his routines are interrupted or even delayed, the consequences (at least for Jolyon) are dire. He has pills. He hasn’t left his apartment in three years. He has mnemonics to help him remember to eat, to shower, to brush his teeth.

And the farther we get into the retelling, the more serious the consequences become. Cheering for the opposing team – in United’s fan section. Giving a public speech on how Thatcher’s slap down of the miner’s strike saved the UK economy – by the child of one of those miners. Jolyon’s life is falling apart around him, in both the past and the present, the memories of the game messing with his sanity. But is Jolyon really losing it? Or is someone gaslighting him?

By the time you reach the end, you don’t know which way is up or who actually won this sickening game they created. And you’re reminded just how cruel teenagers can be.

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