The Things We Do To Our Friends by Heather Darwent

The Things We Do To Our Friends is a literary thriller in a dark academia type vein, in which the protagonist is drawn into a group of students who start up a secret project. Clare is starting at the University of Edinburgh and putting her past behind her, but she’s picky with who she wants as her friends. When she meets fellow History of Art students Tabitha and Imogen, and their friends Ava and Samuel, it seems that Clare has found what she was looking for: rich, beautiful friends who live somewhere far nicer than a student house, who make up plans that grow to include Clare, like going off to France. And, it seems, their new project, which Clare will have a vital role in, but it seems they might know what she’s running from.

The blurb suggesting this book was The Secret History but set in Edinburgh drew me in, and rarely can books live up to that comparison in my opinion (except perhaps The Lessons, but that’s just because it works for me personally). This one starts with a strange prologue scene and then we’re immediately in Clare’s first person narration. As she emphasises how she doesn’t have money, has to get a bar job, and feels like an outsider, the comparisons with The Secret History seem very vivid, and I thought it was going to be very similar, but just with History of Art instead of Classics. The narrative style works to lead you in, making you aware that Clare is telling this story with hindsight, but for me, the atmosphere wasn’t quite as vivid as I’d hoped for.

The actual “project” part of the book is a bit more generic and less shocking than I would’ve liked too, and not related to the university setting or initial focus on three of the group studying History of Art. Without wanting to get into spoilers, the narrative does engage quite interestingly with possible consequences of what they get into and is fairly gripping, though I think in general the stakes tended to not feel very high for Clare and the ending wasn’t entirely satisfying for me, seeming to be more about telling you how warped she is.

I liked the Edinburgh setting, though it fell away later in the book, which didn’t really sustain the atmosphere of the start throughout. A lot of the time I felt like it was too busy trying to be like The Secret History but not quite getting the dark eccentricity of Tartt’s novel as being a selling point. I also felt like the interpersonal relationships between the group weren’t really explored as much as they could have been, perhaps because the book is more focused on the plot element of their project as it goes on. I think people who are more interested in a dark academia type thriller rather than something that pulls fully on the twisted, toxic relationships and dark actions would maybe enjoy this book more than me, though it did keep me interested.