Book Review | The Divines by Ellie Eaton

Isn’t it funny how our schooldays can haunt us, years – decades – after they’re gone? For Josephine, her time at elite English boarding school, St John the Divine, is a shadow she can’t shake. Even now, living in L.A. and married to an ‘overwhelmingly decent man’, her time as a ‘Divine’ remains an unspoken history. Through a dual narrative, we return to those heady days of nineties’ girlhood at St John, as Josephine – known to her schoolfriends as Joe – slowly unpacks and unravels the fateful events that came to pass.

There is gulf of privilege that separates the Divines in their ‘ivory tower’ and the townies, residents of the local area, for whom the school is both loathed and derided and also an essential source of employment. The townies see the Divines as a ‘stuck-up, supercilious bunch of trust funders’, completely oblivious to the real ways of the world. So when Joe half-accidentally befriends a townie, Lauren, neither of them really know how to behave around each other. Lauren’s world – alcoholic father, mother with a long-term illness, and having to work two jobs alongside school to help out with the bills – is an alien existence to Joe, who’s mocked by Lauren’s family for her plummy speech and affected manners.

With astute psychological insight, Eaton lays bare the female teenage experience in an unflinching way. She captures the awkwardness of teenagerhood so well, the utterly unbearable feeling of inhabiting a changing body, the unease of being in your own skin. She pores over the oscillating dynamics of female friendship, the pain of being ostracised from a group, the desperation to fit in. Selfhood is constantly malleable, the way the girls are perceived and perceive each other. Eaton describes Joe as ‘self-obsessed, too caught up in my own narrative to care about anyone but myself’ – and has there ever been a more accurate description of teenagerhood?

It’s told with the haze of 90s nostalgia, but it’s a nostalgia intermingled with a growing sense of foreboding, of dread. We know that a terrible, tragic event occurred at the school – an event that has haunted Joe throughout her life. And yet despite this, she draws us a picture that feels so real, and the nostalgia so poignant –

‘…the camaraderie of school life. The sensation of having my knee tickled, my hair stroked, the weight of an arm linked through my own. The complete indifference to the outside world. The jokes, the rumours, the secrets.’

We come to find that there is a dissonance between past and present, between fiction and reality. Josephine’s attempt to reconcile her version of events with what happened on those fateful days takes her back to St John – the school has long since been dissolved and buildings turned into flats, a dentist’s office – for a reunion. She hopes to gain some kind of closure, self-composure, and the ability to finally put the events of that fateful year to bed.

‘What am I supposed to tell him? That, since becoming a mother, I exist in a state of perpetual unease. That the world seems to me overwhelmingly dangerous and chaotic. How of all the multitudinous threats posed to him and the baby—earthquakes, rising sea levels, drunk drivers, melanomas, pandemics, zealots with semiautomatics—it’s something else I’m most afraid of. The past, slowly coiling around us, the snake in the crib.’

It’s completely absorbing, a slow-burn piece of literary fiction that grapples with the nature of memory, history, and selfhood. It’s also beautifully written in suspenseful, taut prose. While the ending might not be to everyone’s taste, I felt it worked perfectly within the context of the novel and its nuanced, complex narrative. Highly recommended.

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