Well it’s been a while since I’ve had to write an it’s-1am-and-I’m-really-tired-but-I’ve-just-finished-this-book-and-I-need-to-talk-about-it-NOW review. I finished If We Were Villains about ten minutes ago, but I’m so buzzed that there’s not much point trying to sleep at the moment anyway. I feel tense, and anxious, and slightly physically sick, and if those aren’t the markers of a good book, I don’t know what is.
Plot summary: Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day of his release, he is greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, and he wants to know what really happened a decade before.
As a young actor at an elite conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same characters onstage and off – villain, hero, temptress – though he was always a supporting role. But when the teachers change the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into real life.
When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless…
I’ve heard it said that this is a poor man’s The Secret History, but that is profoundly unfair. It’s definitely marketed that way and, at first glance, the premise looks similar too. A group of pretentious, sheltered young academics, one of whom eventually dies. The tone is vaguely reminiscent too – it’s gothic and mysterious, and peppered with archaic references. However. It could be that I read The Secret History long enough ago that the majority of it has faded from memory, but I still think that If We Were Villains is different enough, and M.L. Rio skilled enough, that this book can completely stand on its own.
It did take me a while to figure out which character is which. There are seven people, three female and four male, and whilst the narrative does try to emphasise that Oliver is the nice one, Meredith is the sexy one, etc, it still took about a quarter of the novel to get it straight. I can’t say this bothered me overmuch, however. At that stage, you just need to know that there are seven of them and they’re under intense amounts of pressure. It does become clear by the time anything dramatic happens.
It’s a very emotional, but in a hidden restrained way? All the emotions are sort of bubbling beneath the surface, so you’re left to interpret them and it’s perfect. Hatred, jealousy, love, lust, suspicion, despair… It’s a book that never feels the need to say ‘Wren was feeling very jealous,’ as you know damn well how she’s feeling because you can see it. Even then though, it can be interesting trying to figure out why the characters are acting as they are. What are the links between the characters? What’s going on? Are they covering for each other? It’s so wonderfully crafted.
It’s very, very tense. It’s a slowbuild book – the tension and atmosphere builds so slowly that by the time I reached the ending, my heart was beating in my chest and I felt physically sick. What an ending. Both the conclusion of the original mystery, and the current-day ending with the detective are rough and gritty and… argh. I’m still having an adrenaline spike now.
It might have helped if I’d had a slightly better knowledge of Shakespeare. I was alright with the Macbeth and the Romeo and Juliet, but they also do King Lear and Caesar, and I have absolutely zero knowledge of those. They frequently talk in Shakespeare quotes and whilst you can usually puzzle out the meaning (and it doesn’t really affect your understanding of the plot if you don’t), it might have flowed a bit better if I could. I could have taken this as a spur to go and educate myself… but I didn’t.
I finished If We Were Villains in two sittings, and I only stopped reading the first time because I absolutely had to. I was glued to this. I actually clicked onto Amazon and bought my own copy when I was about four pages from the end. It’s the sort of book you need to own.
In short, I’d really recommend it. I’m not convinced that I don’t like If We Were Villains more than The Secret History, but I’d need to reread that to nail my colours to the mast. It’s a book I’ll definitely reread and it’ll be interesting to look at the story from a different perspective, considering I now know the conclusion. It’s subtly emotional, but also tense and nail biting. Do read this – but note that you’ll be up until 1am.
(honestly, I’ll read anything she ever writes).