Starting university in a new city is an opportunity for reinvention for Clare, the first-person narrator of Heather Darwent’s promising debut novel. Arriving in Edinburgh to study History of Art, she can be who she wants to be, and even if she hasn’t yet worked out exactly who that is, she knows the people with whom she associates will be crucial.
She rules out her flatmates almost immediately: well-meaning girls who study, cook pasta and join the university swimming team. Instead, she is drawn to a group of rich kids from lectures, a clique which shimmers with entitlement and sophistication.
She calls them The Shiver (the collective noun for a group of sharks): glamorous Tabitha, put-upon Imogen, gregarious Samuel and cool, clever Ava. When Tabitha reveals her grand plan for a business venture, Clare, the ingenue, starts to look dangerously like her pawn.
But Clare is not naive. We soon realise there’s plenty she isn’t telling us, including her real name. Casually, she mentions violent outbursts (smashing a mirror with her hand in “a single unguarded moment”). There are hints at past misdeeds. Does The Shiver need Clare more than she needs them?
Darwent, who is based near Edinburgh after studying in the city herself, keeps the reader guessing. Any time the balance of power appears to settle, the plot takes another twist, and she’s good at descriptions with a sinister edge, from a dish of Peking duck to a shadow of mould on a wall.
While Clare is spikey and elusive, Tabitha is not fully realised as the beautiful, cruel, magnetic centre of the novel. There is an impressively Hitchcockian scene in which she takes Clare to have her hair styled exactly like her own, but more often she is fey and manipulative. Why, we wonder, do her friends find her so irresistible?
The device of a newcomer infiltrating a privileged, close-knit group has prompted comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but this book is more page-turning suspense than literary heavyweight. It isn’t a campus novel either – the university plays only a peripheral role – and, as an exploration of female power, its conclusions are ambiguous at best.
Its focus is money: who has it, what people will do to get it, how it feels to be on the outside with your face pressed against the glass. Is Clare’s fascination really with Tabitha, or with her gorgeous New Town flat? Edinburgh, city of gothic drama and 21st-century property boom, presents itself as the ideal backdrop for a psychological drama of the haves and have-nots.
The Things We Do To Our Friends, by Heather Darwent, Viking, £14.99