A group of students studying a notoriously cliquey subject at arts college become embroiled in guilt after the death of one of their number, a secret which threatens to tear them apart. No, I’m not describing Donna Tartt’s emblematic novel The Secret History, about a group of pretentious classics students: instead this is If We Were Villains, a 2017 novel by M.L. Rio, about a group of Shakespeare-obsessed actors.
A large problem with If We Were Villains, in fact, is that it rests in The Secret History’s long shadow. This could perhaps be excused if the reader’s expectations weren’t set up that way going in: but it’s all there from the start, from the testimonial on the front which begins ‘Like Donna Tartt’s A Secret History…’ to the cover which pays a striking homage to the 1992 classic.
But there is something intensely compelling about ‘dark academia’, a phrase which I’ve seen coined for this unique ‘pretentious-students-killing-their-classmates’ genre. It’s something which feels particularly pertinent at Oxford, a university which carries that same feeling of competition and claustrophobia. You can almost feel the suspense when a tute partner doesn’t turn up, even if in real life they’re more likely to have overslept than died or been hospitalised through drug overdose, which seems to be the norm in these books. As a world which seems one wrong step away from our own, it’s intensely compelling. You can accept the similarities: the problem is in the execution.
The central conceit of Rio’s book is that each of the seven theatre students is continually typecast in a single role: the hero, the villain, the ingenue, the femme fatale. These tropes are acknowledged within the novel itself – a little too explicitly for my taste – which suggests there will be an eventual role-reversal, a point at which the audience’s expectations will be subverted. Unfortunately, Rio exaggerates rather than inverts the tropes which she sets up at the start. As a result, each character either feels two-dimensional or inadequate, their assigned role either going too far in defining their character or failing to quite fit.
For example: ‘femme fatale’ Meredith, despite being scathing and whip-smart, never enters the scene without her ‘curves’ being described (usually under a slinky dress). Meanwhile, our protagonist, Oliver (the ‘sidekick’) is continually described as a ‘nice guy’ by this friends, but actually strikes me as rather unlikeable: he stirs up group tension rather than defuses it, and at one point he shows too little upset when a family member falls ill. It’s not a real inversion of the role he’s been put in – it’s an inconsistent characterisation.
Similarly problematic is the continual quoting of Shakespeare. “He speaks the unspeakable,” Oliver says. “He turns grief and triumph and rapture and rage into words, into something we can understand.” The Shakespearean quotations are a wonderful shorthand for the student actors, but unfortunately this understanding doesn’t transfer to the reader. The same language which makes the students appear cliquey and isolated also comes at the cost of alienating the audience: the references are too long and too frequent, and their lack of explanation often distracts rather than adds to the scene. A reader who understands the symbolism of Hamlet or The Tempest will probably find a lot of hidden meaning, but it’s not enough to present those quotations without context and assume the audience will understand their significance.
It’s a shame, as when the narration steps outside of the early modern period it proves compelling. The novel is exacting in its description of the minutiae of college life – people conspicuous by their absence, and the gradual closing-in of the police investigation. What Rio doesn’t quite capture, however, is the sense of growing guilt, of the slow descent into madness which made Tartt’s book what it was. None of the group regrets the death of their former friend, nor can the audience blame them – rather than subtly psychological, the violence is visceral (broken noses, bruised arms, smashed-in faces), and tied up in a none-too-subtle Julius Caesar metaphor. This means the second half cruises along without much direction, the group feeling vague paranoia without the moral ambiguity needed to give it any substance.
Rio’s novel does track the group’s dissolution fairly well, noting the cracks and re-alliances which form in the group skilfully, but there’s less a sense of the group tearing themselves apart and more of a catapulting into madness. I find it hard to believe simply rearranging the roles in a play can have that much influence on one’s personality. There are, however, surprising twists. Although I guessed the murderer, the murdered took me by surprise – and even then, I didn’t expect the final-act reveal, even with hints present throughout.
The one area where Rio’s novel really comes into its own is in its exploration of romance, through a wonderful relationship which introduces some of the most poignant scenes of the book. Although not concluded on a fully satisfactory note, it does allow some genuine intrigue and pathos to be introduced, which up until that point are absent. When the emotional stakes are raised – and they certainly are – the novel reaches its most captivating. It’s certainly a compelling story and is written with luxurious eloquence, but If We Were Villains at times lacks substance and too often falls into the stereotypes it wants to avoid.