Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.
As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead.
The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.
How to describe this book? I honestly don’t even have adequate words to explain how much I loved it as well as how much it messed with my brain – in the best way possible. I literally sat there contemplating and trying to come to terms with what I had read, I had cried a fricking river by that point so I had a headache, it was a whole thing but at the same time, I was utterly amazed and so touched by this story of friendship, love, morals, obsession and murder. I said this on my Twitter once I had finished reading but it’s like someone had taken a look inside my brain and written the perfect story for my reading tastes. Thank you M. L Rio.
If We Were Villains tells the story of seven theatre students who are in their last year at an elite conservatory college, as they study the works of Shakespeare and get immersed in his works until reality and fiction become irreparably blurred. While the group have been inseparable for years, the stress of last year as well as artistic ambition, jealousy and a controversial casting choice lead to tension between the friends, leading inexorably to murder.
“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”
The novel is split into two timelines; In the present day we follow Oliver Marks, as he is released after serving ten years in prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. Detective Colborne, now retired seeks the truth, as he senses there is more to the story than meets the eye. The second timeline is set in the past, revealing what led up to the murder and the aftermath as well. I thought this structure worked so well to heighten the dramatic tension and suspense as the truth of what happened all those years ago is revealed. It also adds such a bittersweet and wistful nature to the tale and is highly effective and emphasises the key themes of the novel for me; moral ambiguity, the passage of time and choices we can’t come back from.
I loved the overall tone and ‘aesthetic’ of the book if you will, it fits into the dark academia sub genre which I’m such a fan of but also is deeply original and a refreshing addition to the genre too. I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt quite recently and while I enjoyed it, there was just something missing for me, like a slight disconnect. However, If We Were Villains, despite having obvious similarities to Tartts novel, just clicked with me completely and was a much more enjoyable reading experience. I don’t want to speak for the author but I think Rio has more consciously or unconsciously, written a more empathetic and haunting novel which just spoke to me in so many ways.
“But that is how a tragedy like ours or King Lear breaks your heart—by making you believe that the ending might still be happy, until the very last minute.”
One of the main draws to this novel for me were the characters because they were each so interesting and complex. I loved how Rio establishes them as ‘character types’ at first but totally subverts expectations with most if not all of them. I thought Oliver was a fitting choice to be the protagonist and seeing the events through his perspective was interesting, especially once you reach the end and reread with the benefit of hindsight. Oliver was deeply relatable to me, he feels extraordinarily average and ordinary in every way, in comparison to his friends and peers who seem to have endless talent and a magnetism which draws people to them. I definitely know how it feels to believe that about yourself so I really connected with Oliver.
I especially loved how Meredith was treated as a character and how Rio took care to show that while she is beautiful and desirable, there is so much more to her than just her physical appearance. Many of the male characters objectify Meredith and shame her, but it was refreshing to see that not only did she stand up for herself within the text but the writer made a conscious effort to portray her as a complex character, despite the misconceptions about her. I feel like if you see her as just the ‘femme fatale’, it’s doing a great disservice to the character and text, because there is so much evidence within that she is more than that archetype. I will also say that the two other female characters; Filippa and Wren are given room to develop and I just wish there was more text so we could explore them even more.
The friendships and relationships in this novel felt so vital and real, whilst also being flawed but this is not a negative. I feel like the bonds between the characters make complete sense for who they are and they never rung false for me. Despite the fact that they all care for each other and are so close, there was room for jealousy and ego to creep in such an insidious way which was sad but so realistic and human. My favourite relationship of the group would have to be Oliver and James, who are the emotional core of the novel for me. While they’re best friends and roommates, there’s also a deeper connection and tension. I love these characters so much and they deserved so much better, despite the questionable decisions they make.
“We had, like seven siblings, spent so much time together that we had seen the best and worst of one another and were unimpressed by either.”
Given that I studied an English Literature degree, and just generally love the works of the bard, I loved the many, many references to Shakespeare and his works. I mean are the characters totally pretentious thespians at certain points? Yes. Did I love the book anyway? Also yes. It was so cool to read how the novel follows the structure and has elements of a Shakespearean tragedy in many ways – tragic hero, revenge, issues of fate – whilst the characters are actually putting on a production of Macbeth and King Lear which are also tragedies. It felt meta as heck and I appreciated it so much.
“One thing I’m sure Colborne will never understand is that I need language to live, like food—lexemes and morphemes and morsels of meaning nourish me with the knowledge that, yes, there is a word for this. Someone else has felt it before.”
The key turning point in the novel is the murder. Now once you’re reading, it’s not hard to figure out who the victim will be or is, but it’s like you’re given half of a puzzle and you have to figure out how we go from point A to B. What leads a group of friends to this darkest of points? And how do they live with themselves after the fact? These are two key questions the novel presents and it was so gripping to read as each of the ‘villains’ navigate this in their own way. Much like in Shakespeares plays, murder is an act that changes the tone and sets characters on a path to destruction in so many different ways.
“Secrets carry weight, like lead.”
I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys if you plan to read this novel in the future, it’s definitely one of those stories where spoilers would just ruin the emotional impact so I’ll refrain from including any details about the ending. But I will say this; what an ending. I feel like this is one of those endings and final lines where you’re left contemplating your own existence and you have to stare into the void for a while. I seriously could not stop thinking about it for days afterwards and it still gives me chills when I revisit it in my mind.
Overall, If We Were Villains was a truly profound and well written novel with Shakespearean reference galore, compelling characters and an ending I’ll be thinking about forever more. No exaggeration there, trust me! I would definitely recommend this novel to fans of dark academia and more thoughtful mystery thrillers.
Until next time,