I have been desperate to read Darwent’s debut novel since hearing about it on BookTok last summer. I believe my feelings were shared by many, given that Cosmopolitan magazine anticipated it to be one of ‘the best books to look forward to in 2023’. Released on 12th January, this dark-academia book echoes Donna Tarts’ The Secret History and M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. The novel tells of the twisted secrets and mysterious goings-on of a group of privileged students at The University of Edinburgh. The group have an unusual and contorted business idea which they plan to carry out whatever the cost and horrifying secrets are revealed in the process. My question is: does this dramatised account of a student’s experience in Edinburgh reveal anything of truth about university life?
The book explores different themes which affect students: sexual identity, classism, poverty, mental health disorders, and sexual abuse. Although theatricalised, these themes highlight the lived experiences and reality of many students. There is a deep dive into what makes up a student’s identity, the difficulties surrounding moving away from home, making new friends, and perhaps getting a part-time job—all whilst starting a four-year degree.
Darwent’s story provides valuable insight into the desire to fit in when starting university and what might happen if you fall in with the wrong crowd. The book highlights the struggle of balancing a social life and studying, a shared experience for many when starting university. It also touches on the mental health challenges that can accompany being a student. Whilst the protagonist, Clare, does not attend many lectures, the reader understands the social pressures she faces with her newfound friends and the struggles she has with her mental health and low self-esteem.
Love and relationships are explored in the novel, although predominantly through the danger of toxic or abusive relationships. The characters question their sexual identities and discover different types of romantic relationships, including polygamy and casual dating. This is relatable for many students as the university years often align with the first few years of adult life and can prompt a journey of self-discovery.
The novel also explores the challenge for students who must work during their studies to afford to live in the city and the stress and time constraints this can bring. I feel that the theme of classism is incorporated in an informative yet subtle way, similar to novels such as Normal People by Sally Rooney. Unlike her well-off friends, Clare must work in a bar in Grassmarket to afford to pay her rent, receiving no financial help from her family. She always feels like an outsider because she is unable to afford the life of luxury her friends have. I think money is a topic every student can relate to as many struggle to make ends meet, especially in the current cost of living crisis.
Despite the story being dramatised to appeal to the reader, it sheds light on the difficulties many students face as they start their university careers and navigate adult life for the first time. The desire to fit in and be liked can lead us to make questionable decisions, and at university, we have to encounter different challenges and decide who we want to be.
Image Credit: “Life, The Universe and Everything | 366/42” by angsthase. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.