Review: The Divines by Ellie Eaton

“Divines could be cruel, conceited, arcane, but we were faithful to the end. We sobbed and hugged one another. Forever, we promised, always. Nothing could break us apart, proving in the end how much we underestimated Gerry. We swore on our lives. We crossed our hearts.”

Ellie Eaton’s compelling debut is a study into how we constantly reshape our memories in order to make them fit better with the personal identities we are trying to build in the present. Any inaccuracies between who we used to be and who we are tend to be altered in order to create a more harmonious image of our self. And when trauma is also involved, can we really trust our memories to tell the real story? That’s what The Divines is trying to explore in addition to the Boarding School Syndrome, which is related to the long-term effects of attending a boarding school such as depression, anxiety, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships, and even amnesia.

Josephine is newly married, she has a promising career as a freelance journalist, and her future looks so bright that she seemingly has no reason to dwell on the past. A spontaneous visit to her old boarding school will change everything and propel her on a journey of introspection and self-inspection. It will motivate her to reflect on the experiences that built her personality and made her who she is as an adult. She will think back almost obsessively on her classmates, the Divines with their pretentiousness, the way they isolated themselves, looked down on anyone from the outside, their odd traditions and lastly, the scandals that lead to the school closure. When she gets the opportunity to reunite with some of them, she will seize it and try to understand more about her past self and what really went down back then.

The students of St John The Divine are very privileged, they all come from rich families that pay ridiculous tuitions to the school and because of that, the teachers are extremely lenient on them. They let the girls get away with absolutely everything from taunting the school staff relentlessly to smoking and drinking on school grounds without ever being truly punished, they have no regard for the rules or for any authority. The antagonism between the Divines and the ‘townies’ (as the locals are called) made it even more apparent that the girls have no grasp of the real world or the struggles of everyone else because of their entitlement. They have nothing but disdain for anyone who is less than Divine and being Divine comes with speaking and acting in a certain way, owning fancy clothes and having boyish names. Because of this unity and even uniformity, the only characters that leave a lasting impression on Josephine are Gerry Lake who is the outcast of their class and Lauren, a townie that she befriends specifically because she comes from a different background and she isn’t easily impressed by the antics of the Divines. These two characters are the only ones that stir up trouble by not confining to the rules and standards set by the Divines, but there are definitely consequences for their actions.

What set this book apart from the others in the dark academia sub-genre is the emphasis on character development, the negative effects of such an elitist education, and the introspective process that an adult who went to a boarding school might go through, especially when faced with the important decision of choosing the right type of education for their own children rather than the usual themes of mystery, murder, and violence. It doesn’t completely shy away from these later subjects, but it definitely focuses more on human relationships and the psychology behind dark academia. The writing is lyrical and mesmerising, and the twists and the mysterious atmosphere will definitely keep you turning the pages in search for answers. There are some conflicts and plotlines that are build up and teased ceaselessly only to have some very unsatisfying and unforeseeable conclusions. Until you realise how unreliable the narrator really is, you might feel a bit tricked by those turns of events.

The Divines is a bold debut that shows us that memory can be way trickier than we think. It is a gritty study into how our identities are built, how our formative years impact us, and how our past will always influence us in ways that we might not even be aware of. The seemingly effortless way of building suspense, the beautiful writing, and the complex psychological themes that are addressed in this book will certainly convince you that Ellie Eaton is an author to watch.

Many thanks to the publisher and to Edelweiss for offering me the chance to read The Divines!

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Is The Divines on your radar?

What other dark academia do you want to read?

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