I would put M.L. Rio’s 2017 debut If We Were Villains in the ‘dark academia’ category. For me, that’s a book about students in a sort of gothic university setting where dark deeds are done. Donna Tartt probably deserves the credit for writing the quintessential novel in this milieu, The Secret History, a book I read when it first came out and intend to re-read this summer because I recommend it all the time, but have very little memory of the book’s details.
When If We Were Villains begins, Oliver Marks is just being released after spending ten years in prison. He makes a deal with Joseph Colborne, the detective who arrested him but never really believed he was guilty, to finally tell the story of what really happened at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, where Oliver had been one of the seniors in the acting department.
There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no further than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry. all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum.
Dellecher is a weird, isolated school – kind of a given in books of this type. The seven main characters live together in “what was whimsically called the Castle.” They are as eclectic a bunch as you’d expect acting students to be; almost every type you could imagine is represented. They are serious ‘actors’ and at Dellecher, the only playwright they ever study is Shakespeare. Indeed, the seven of them often converse with each other using only words written by the Bard. A Shakespeare scholar might be able to parse the significance of the lines that are spoken; I felt lucky to merely recognize some of them.
Oliver unspools the story of what happened at Dellecher and, in doing so, reveals the dark underbelly of friendship, jealousy, violence, and love that simmers beneath the surface of this close-knit (proximity, not affection necessarily) troupe of players. I can’t say they were a particularly likeable group, but I guess that doesn’t really matter. They’re actors, and by definition we can’t really know who they are beneath the stage make-up. That works in the novel’s favour, really, because when the crime for which Oliver is later incarcerated is committed, the players (let’s call them that instead of friends) have to put on the greatest performance of their lives.
I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. It requires something of its readers: attention must be paid. It is structured in five acts, the ending is ambiguous (although I have my suspicions) and, like any great play, it gave me a lot to think about.
Well worth your time.