Nicole Melanson ~
The Divines by Ellie Eaton is an unsettling look at the dark underbelly of female friendship and groupthink mentality. Set in an elite British boarding school, this debut novel explores the legacy of trauma and shame, asking whether adults can—or should—seek redemption for the sins of their childhood.
Josephine, formerly nicknamed Joe, now known as Sephine, has tried to forget her dubious past as a St. John the Divine student. Josephine remembers herself as having been somewhat of an outsider, torn between loyalty to her “mean girl” friends and curiosity about living a different kind of life. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how Josephine has tried to erase her role in bullying a fellow classmate, while her conscience refuses to let her off the hook.
This is not a book about light and shade. Most of the characters are self-serving and wholly unlikeable, which is perhaps the point. In the stifling context of prosperity and privilege, Josephine and her classmates have no choice but to pit themselves against the locals in an age-old Town & Gown rivalry. The Divines systematically exposes the perils of this classism, even as the characters worry about social standing amongst their own peers and jockey for popularity.
Where this novel succeeds is in its willingness to universally apportion blame and guilt. There are no innocent victims amongst The Divines; each girl is complicit in some kind of transgression against another student, teacher, family member, or local. Eaton does such a good job holding Josephine accountable for her actions that it’s hard not to imagine every other student deserving the same degree of reckoning.
I also give The Divines points for atmosphere. The setting is vividly rendered in a really authentic way. Eaton anchors the novel with connections to current events that make for a based-on-a-true-story feel across several disturbing subplots.
One thing I am still mulling over is the use of offensive terminology in The Divines. Amongst other things, there’s homophobia and ableism, including the R-word. Whilst this language is historically accurate (much of the novel is set in the 90s), I question whether it isn’t a little bit lazy in this day and age to exploit the effect of slurs—equivalent to using rape as a plot device instead of coming up with a more creative way to showcase a character’s villainy.
I found the use of dual timelines a little frustrating, too. The start of the novel finds Josephine’s husband prodding at her to reveal her past. That past quickly takes over the narrative, with the present-day scenes feeling less interesting or crucial in comparison. I did like where the novel finished, though. The ending felt unexpected and fresh.
Minus a couple of slow bits, some slurs, and a few too many “obsequious”, “detonates”, and hair “tenting” faces, The Divines is an interesting study of entitlement, peer pressure, and toxic friendship well worth a read.
— Nicole Melanson