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3 December 2013

Varsity Blues

I read a lot of books and the confirmation bias means that I'm never too surprised when I read two books in a row that explore similar themes, as was the case with Christopher J. Yates's Black Chalk and Amy Silver's The Reunion. Both novels examine the way you think that the friends you have at university will be your best friends for life. The people you know best. The people who know you best. And yet in both novels, this idea is shown to be false, with dark and tragic consequences.

Black Chalk alternates between the story of a 30-something hermit, living in Manhattan but too afraid to leave home except to stock up on food and alcohol, and flashbacks to a group of lonely but intelligent young people who meet at the University of Oxford in the early 1990s. The present-day sections are dark, bleak and mysterious, yielding clues as to who the narrator is and exactly what happened in the past 13 years only gradually.

Chad, an American exchange student on his junior year abroad, is desperate to find friends. He is funny and clever but suffered from terrible acne as a teenager and lacks confidence. He targets and then becomes friends with Jolyon, a popular, sardonic bon viveur and they while away the hours making cocktails that seem exotic to university students in the 1990s. Don't be fooled: Brideshead Revisited this ain't. At the freshers' fair, Chad and Jolyon meet the mysterious Game Soc and put forward their proposal for a new game: a silly game of dares that are designed to humiliate, but not physically harm, the participants. The boys recruit four other students — Jack the joker, competitive Mark, dark Dee and beautiful Emilia — and the game begins. At stake is a prize of a few thousand pounds — at first, at least. The stakes soon begin to rise, though, as the dares get harder and Lady Luck seems to favour some players more than others. From the present-day instalments, we know something went horribly wrong during the course of the game and what started as something innocent — something that would allow the players to bond — became dangerous and overwhelming.

I really enjoyed Black Chalk and was gripped right up until the end, although I found the ending itself a little anti-climactic. I also greatly preferred the flashback scenes. It was fun working out the Oxford colleges, pubs and street names based on Yates's pseudonyms, for one thing, and the touches of Waugh and also of Donna Tartt's A Secret History worked well. I found myself skipping quickly through the present-day sections, which I felt sometimes tried too hard to be clever and complex, but I liked the achronological structure and the unreliability of the narration. Black Chalk is wickedly dark, highly compelling and well worth a read.

Amy Silver's The Reunion is aimed at quite a different audience — you can tell from the cover that you're in chick-lit city — but the overall plot structure is quite similar to Black Chalk. In the present day, Jen is trying to organise a gathering of her best friends from university at her family's house in the French Alps. However, as is revealed in a series of flashbacks, letters and emails — mostly in the mid-1990s — the group members are estranged because of tragic circumstances. There were six of them in the group at university: Jen, her boyfriend Conor, Conor's best friend Andrew, blonde bombshell/drama queen Lilah, Lilah's best friend Natalie, and Dan.

Almost 20 years later and Andrew and Natalie are married with kids, Lilah is a cougar, and Dan is a film director, whom the rest of the group hasn't really forgiven for making a movie about their friendships and their past. Jen hasn't seen any of them for years. "When a snowstorm descends, they find themselves trapped and forced to confront their unresolved issues, frustrated passions and broken friendships," the blurb notes (OK, I was struggling to find something new to read in my local library!). This isn't really true. Or, at least, the real confrontation takes place in the minds of each character as we flash back to see events from their perspective; the titular reunion is really just a narrative device. Each person remembers different things and remembers things differently, and slowly, through a drip-feed of little clues, the reader is able to piece together exactly what happened.

On paper, it sounds a little cheesy, but I enjoyed The Reunion. It's a page-turner and I ended up staying up later than I ought so that I could finish it. Although the characters seem at first to be clich├ęs, the flashbacks and the epistolary component of the novel give them a greater depth, and I really wanted to know what happened. What went wrong. None of the characters is perfect, but I did sympathise with most of them, and although this set of characters is older than me and the circumstances are different to my own university experience, I do like the novel's exploration of the way life so often turns out differently to the future you pictured when you were an idealistic, optimistic 20-year-old. Not necessarily worse, of course, although the experience portrayed both in The Reunion and Black Chalk is sometimes (in the case of the former) or usually (in the case of the latter) bleak and devastating.

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