Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00CZ7OC28
356 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The summary description of “Black Chalk” enticed me with the novel’s premise, yet it also made me wary with its comparisons to Donna Tartt’s brilliant “The Secret History”. Both of these initial impressions proved well-founded. Yates’ debut novel is built around a terrific idea, the development and consequences of a cruel, high-stakes game developed by a group of college students. This period and setting of life, simultaneously a step forward into ‘adulthood’ and also a regression to child-like social mentalities, is prime both for literary exploration and construction of a wonderful thriller as Donna Tartt proved.

Whether Yates’ work here is directly influenced by Tartt’s novel or just bears chance similarities in plot, it is notable that the similarities between works are superficial, at the level of setting and general themes. In addition to a secretive group of intelligent, though naive, students, “Black Chalk” has the additional element of an enigmatic outside force shaping the start of events. “Game Club” as they are called, make one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, yet its purpose and secret wind up being rather mundane, leaving this element sadly under-utilized.

Instead, “Black Chalk” focuses on the students, particularly the founding pair of the group, using a narrative structure of first person recounting prior events through third person. As the history is told, it becomes clear both who the narrator is and that he suffers from mental problems and drug side effects, suggesting his related information may be unreliable. Indeed it begins to appear that some of the recorded text may not even be the narrator’s own words, but something another has come in and added to his writings. Unfortunately, very little is done with the potential created by this unreliability. Past events are described still from solely this unreliable point of view, leaving things confusing just how much is ‘true’ and what is imagined or altered.

Initial suspense created by the narrative structure and the general premise of the plot become bogged down in much of the inaction of the novel’s progression. The social disintegration of the student’s friendship is hardly surprising, and the cruel games end up feeling not terribly bad considering the build up for horrors that the mind of the reader may begin to imagine. The suspense of the novel builds the reader up for an eventual showdown and ending to the ‘game’, and while the ultimate solution for achieving victory is well constructed, this showdown also ends up feeling like a let-down, far less disastrous or horrible as expectations may be.

The writing of “Black Chalk” is good, but it doesn’t give the novel the same literary weight as Tartt’s work, covering similar issues, but without the degree of symbolism, allusions, etc. In the end it could still have been a decent thriller, but never managed to be as ‘disturbing’ as I initially expected from the premise. I think Yates has the talent to produce some great works, this debut just had too many issues in terms of characterization, depth, missed opportunities, and the unfortunate invitation for comparison to “The Secret History”.

Two Stars out of Five

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393088723
327 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In British usage, rustication refers to a suspension from university; in the case of this historical mystery novel the rusticated is Richard, the opium-addicted, seventeen year old protagonist, fraught with the sexual urges of youth and the disappointment of his family. Richard’s banishment from school forces him to return to his recently widowed mother and hostile sister, in their newly acquired isolated home in the country.

Mysteries and uncertainties abound for Richard upon his arrival, the mysterious behavior of his mother and sister, the state of the home, the uncertain circumstances of his father’s death. Keeping his own secrets of what transpired at his school to precipitate the rustication, Richard struggles to deal with separation from the poppy and the hostility of his family and their neighbors. Coupled with the strife of family and social relations, the community soon finds evidence of a deranged mind or minds – mutilated animals, and vulgar, cruel letters sent to women. Richard’s troubles and his prying into the oddities of his family and the community eventually throw him into suspicion.

Written as a ‘found’ diary by Richard, one of the aspects of “Rustication” I did appreciate was his voice and character. He is a finely and subtly rendered seventeen year old of the era – or any era for that matter – in that he is extremely inconsistent. At moments he is vulgar, at moments he is a gallant gentleman, at times he is striving to do his best and help his family, at other moments he gives into the euphoria of the opium. And above all he is inconsistent in the objects of his desires, full of hormones, yearning and imagining sexual liaisons with near every eligible female who crosses his path, turning from infatuation to disappointment and disgust, and back to infatuation. Given the remainder of the characters are only seen through Richard’s eyes, they remain rather flat, and unreliably represented throughout. This is unavoidable with the construction of the novel, and I didn’t mind too much, given Richard himself was fascinating to me.

The book is also written with a lovely period Gothic tone that I enjoyed. However, these weren’t enough to bring me anything more than a mild entertainment through reading it. The plot is slow to start, focusing on family conflicts and the social games between various Houses (families) until half way through when the crimes begin to occur. The letters are vulgar indeed, but after one, you get tired of reading their depravity, obviously intentional bad spelling, and you say enough, get on with it. The story ties together the family issues, Richard’s history causing the rustication, and the crimes into one overarching series of scandals, cover-ups, and machinations. It ends up feeling like too much, and yet too little. The perpetrators of the crime don’t come particularly surprisingly and the lack of any other resolution leaves things feeling empty in what is already even a short novel.

Three  Stars out of Five