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Book Review: The Four by Ellie Keel

Book Review: The Four by Ellie Keel

Rose, Marta, Sami and Lloyd are four scholarship pupils at the prestigious High Realms. They’re all bright and conscientious students, each with their own reasons for wanting to attend the exclusive boarding school. Yet from their very first day it’s clear that they’re outsiders. They don’t belong in this unforgiving world of power and privilege, and the other students – all children from obscenely wealthy families – are determined to make their lives a daily misery. The quartet are subjected to a constant assault of cruel jibes, taunting threats and vicious punishments. The relentless abuse was always going to end in tragedy, but the accident that leaves one student fighting for her life and another running for hers is really just the catalyst for the terrible sequence of events that unfolds in the rest of the book.

Ellie Keel’s The Four puts the ‘dark’ in dark academia. It’s a relentlessly brutal novel, full of sadistic bullies, unjust realities and a pervading sense of bleakness that quickly steals the innocence from the titular four. It’s a genuinely tough book to read, the kind you find difficult to look away from yet simultaneously need to keep putting down, just to get away from the haunting, toxic atmosphere. To go into much more detail about the plot would ultimately steal the shock factor that such a psychological thriller thrives on – and this is very much a book that revolves around its characters’ psyches. Even protagonist Rose, who begins the novel tenderly naïve yet generally level headed, can’t escape the toll that High Realms has on her mental health and physical well-being.

It’s quietly devastating witnessing four promising young students slowly have their lives and futures destroyed, and for what? The senselessness of certain tragedies in this novel feels entirely avoidable and it’s easy to blame the adults, who help to perpetuate a culture of fear, silence and complicity. Yet through all the horrible things that happen in the book, there are small moments of light which feel like the sun breaking through the clouds: glorious and fleeting. That light is the friendship between the four, which becomes a lifeline in the darkness. Of course these characters don’t make the best decisions but ultimately they’re just teenagers trying to save each other, in whatever limited way they can. In that respect, The Four feels very much like a YA novel (though one packed with trigger warnings), dealing with the kind of formative struggles – bullying, first love, unrequited love, loss, fractured families – that young adults go through.

Not just content to be a tough read, The Four is also a slow one, wallowing in its characters’ misery and the increasing madness of their situation for far longer than it needs to. This dragging pace ultimately lets the book down. However, its saving grace is Keel’s tense, vivid and unflinching writing, which hooks you in and keeps you wanting to read more, even when you want to run away. This is a story that would make an excellent TV drama – one about damning secrets and systemic failures. If you enjoyed The Secret History and If We Were Villains, Ellie Keel’s debut should be your next dark academia read.


The Four was published by HQ on 11 April 2024

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