‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.
Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.
Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.
Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.
This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.
Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.
Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017