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.
I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul. The guard stands by the door, watching me, like he’s waiting for something to happen.
There are parts of If We Were Villains that are so relatable contrasted with the most unlikely setting. I mean, an entire school of teenagers obsessed with Shakespeare? Quoting lines in everyday conversation, entire plays are memorised to draw upon within a moment’s notice. Utterly insane. But these characters are so honest and so realistic, it feels totally plausible.
"Wherein I am false I am honest; not true, to be true," I say.
"I thought they would have beaten that bullshit out of you in prison."
"That bullshit is all that kept me going." 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.
I love how the story is told like the plays they’re constantly putting on at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. It kept the story moving and interesting, even when all they want to talk about is Shakespeare. This is a very emotional, character-driven story and the scene changes help to keep you from sitting too long in one place. There’s a pageantry to this school and its students, and it’s utterly fascinating.
How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else's words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding? An attempt to forge that tenuous link between speaker and listener and communicate something, anything, of substance.
I don’t think I have ever had a faster turn from absolute depression to complete and utter joy than I felt when reading the last sentence of If We Were Villains. Talk about the best/worst way to end a story.
There are certainly imperfect parts of this book – the Shakespeare can be a bit much, the characters are a little shallow, the entire premise is insane – but I absolutely loved it. I want to go back and reread it again already, just to be back with these characters and this setting. I certainly didn’t want it to end where it did. Rio nailed leaving you wanting more, and I can only give my five stars in appreciation.