Title: Those Who Knew
Author: Idra Novey
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication date: November 2018
Hardcover: 248 pages
On an unnamed island country ten years after the collapse of a U.S.-supported regime, Lena suspects the powerful senator she was involved with back in her student activist days is taking advantage of a young woman who’s been introducing him at rallies. When the young woman ends up dead, Lena revisits her own fraught history with the senator and the violent incident that ended their relationship.
Why didn’t Lena speak up then, and will her family’s support of the former regime still impact her credibility? What if her hunch about this young woman’s death is wrong?
What follows is a riveting exploration of the cost of staying silent and the mixed rewards of speaking up in a profoundly divided country. Those Who Knew confirms Novey’s place as an essential new voice in American fiction.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Audiobook
And now for something slightly different from my usual fare: A Literary political thriller. I enjoyed it a great deal and for different reasons.
Set on an unnamed island country to the South of the US, Those Who Knew follows a plethora of characters through a number of years following the collapse of a US-supported oppressive regime. The shining political star of the moment is Victor, a beloved liberal senator who began his political career as a student activist. At that time, his girlfriend and fellow activist Lena was right next to him in the fight despite the fact that her own family were collaborators with the regime. Back then, the relationship ended on the day Victor nearly chocked Lena to death during a fight – and because of her family’s past, because of her shame, she walked away and kept silent.
Now, ten years later, Lena sees. She sees the super young female student next to Victor at the rallies and she knows there is something there. She sees he is taking advantage of her. And then one day, the student turns up dead and Lena suspects. No, she knows he killed the student.
Will Lena speak up now? Will anyone even believe her word against that of a powerful man? Or is it too late? She is not alone in her suspicion: she shares her thoughs with her friend Olga, a former revolutionary turned book (and weed) seller. Victor’s new wife Cristina starts to wonder too when Victor’s proclivity for violence turns to their own child. And there is also Freddie, Victor’s gay brother: he also suspects his own brother but their own shared past of loss (their uncle was killed by the regime; their father made the brothers promise to take care of each other) and his fear of reprisal keep him quiet. All he can do is put pen to paper and write a play that will probably never see the light of day.
As the years go by and Lena and Victor’s lives progress, change and intertwine again in unexpected ways, Those Who Knew offers a complex, beautifully written narrative about power, complicity and silence.
I came to the novel expecting to enjoy it for the very welcome take on the #Metoo movement, and although that aspect of Those Who Knew is both topical and expertly done, I found myself much more engrossed in the politics and cultural make-up of the island.
As someone who comes from a Latin American country, I recognised the internal struggles of Idra Novey’s fictional home country: I recognised the feeling of knowing the gross interference of outside forces, I recognised the nets of internal privilege and power dynamics between different social strata. I know what it means to know sympathisers and to know activists in this very specific set-up. I recognised the shame of leaving in order to have a better life just like Lena did when she went abroad to study.
I have seen a lot of talk about the novel in the context of the #MeToo movement and how the novel is specifically in timely conversation with the topics of complicity and silence, which are both, indeed, at the core of the novel. But I think those two elements – complicity and silence – are presented in different ways here too. It shows the dynamics of power from bottom to top in a much more nuanced, complex narrative than I was expecting.
For a such a short novel, it carries a lot of weight. There is no single, simple answer to “but why didn’t she come forward before” and Those Who Knew looks at the very question head-on.
Rating: 8 – Excellent