Fucked up friends, murder most foul: If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
If We Were Villains is a tense and electrifying novel about a group of actor friends whose lives turn towards the Shakespearean tragedies that they have all immersed themselves in. The narrator, Oliver Marks, has just been released from prison after ten years, and finds himself telling the detective who put him there the real story of what happened. The story that unfolds is one of a rarified environment at an elite conservatory, where seven friends and classmates pour their souls into performing Shakespeare. When one of them is found dead, suddenly the line between life and fictional tragedy seems dissolved, and it isn’t quite clear who is blameless of what.
The comparisons with The Secret History are almost too obvious to be stated: intense group of friends immersed in one subject, death, a narrator remembering the past and flitting with unreliability. What is notably different is the narrative arc and pacing, which in Tartt’s novel is centred around covering up what has been done as they all fall apart from doing it, whereas in If We Were Villains, the questions are about what really happened on that night and whether the cracks were already there beforehand. Consequently, it has a more thriller-like pace at times, and it is hard once you’re near the end to not want to race on and take the final blows. The division into five acts allows for the framing device of Oliver telling his story, though that in itself is also a space for revelation, and the ending packs a punch.
The gripping and at times excruciating heart of the novel is the relationship between Oliver and James, which starts off as a clearly interesting friendship and doesn’t disappoint those who stay intrigued by it. Due to the structure of the novel, the reader is plunged into the world of the seven actors once they’ve known each other over three years, meaning that instead of seeing how they became friends as in some novels of this kind, the narrative throws you into their varied dynamics and shows how it starts to fall apart. As with other books about intense groups of friends at elite learning establishments (not just TSH, but Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons too, and The Bellwether Revivals to some extent), it is hard to leave the group behind after the final page as they are such an intoxicating and messed up bunch.
Admittedly, If We Were Villains was always going to be in my interests. Not only did I study Shakespeare, but the author did the same Shakespeare MA at the same time as me, so I’ve also seen the kind of people who could get like this, and the ‘messed up pretentious student friendship group go too far’ genre is one of my absolute favourites (see this post for more). Anyone with an interest in either (or both) of those areas is likely to enjoy this novel which weaves Shakespearean quotations into dialogue in a way that will be worryingly recognisable to some, and seem completely weird to everyone else. A solid addition to my favourite sub-sub-genre of literary fiction.