BookBrowse Reviews Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

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Those Who Knew

A Novel

by Idra Novey

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey X
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2018, 256 pages

    Nov 2019, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



Citizens of an unnamed island nation continue a slow process of recovery a decade after the end of a dictatorial regime, and a rising political star is discovered to be harboring a dark secret.

Idra Novey's blistering Those Who Knew explores the effects of totalitarianism, imperialist meddling and misogyny in a heady tale of violence and political dissent in which a popular senator is not at all the man he seems to be.

Victor, the senator, is on the fast track to the presidency. He is a young, liberal-minded voice for change who wins the youth vote by speaking out in favor of free college tuition. However, Victor's ex-girlfriend Lena knows the truth: he has a history of violence, and he was the last one to see a young female student named Maria alive before she (supposedly) stepped in front of a bus. Lena confides that she suspects Victor killed Maria to her best friend Olga, a merchant of books and marijuana, and they conspire to bring Victor down. Meanwhile, Victor's brother Freddy also has suspicions about what happened to Maria and faces a complicated choice about whether he should speak up or protect his brother.

The novel poses compelling questions about what we owe each other; what we owe to the dead, to our families, to our country, and how we should prioritize these loyalties. Novey considers the jarring experience of being confronted with a new truth when a person one admires turns out to be monstrous, or simply not at all what one supposed. Victor's misogynist attitudes are revealed slowly, giving credence to Lena's suspicions. The novel shifts perspectives among the principal characters, and Victor's point-of-view is decidedly nasty, as he notes dismissively that he could not trust Maria because "she was a girl, and girls were feline, always purring up to one another with their secrets." He remarks about another female student, "It was like a perfume, to be on the receiving end of that kind of eagerness, of a young woman's gratitude for his willingness to hear her out."

The island nation where the novel is set is never identified, nor is the island's northern neighbor, a powerful nation (whose citizens are noted to be paler than the islanders) that supported Cato's regime. The northern nation is clearly meant to be the United States, allowing Novey to wax political on U.S. involvement abroad. Much of the inventory in Olga's bookstore consists of famous communist tomes the island's inhabitants have dug up from their yards, which were buried during Cato's communist purge. Olga refers to "a certain bearded revolutionary endlessly mythologized in movies produced by the same northerners who'd had him killed." This is likely a reference to revolutionary Che Guevera, a favorite of American activists and intellectuals. (See Beyond the Book for Next Year in Havana.) Victor remarks that the northern nation is famous for police brutality, the dismantling of unions, fast food restaurants, and inferior chocolate.

Though Lena is a force to be reckoned with, her friend Olga is a quietly heroic presence with a tragic backstory that makes her late-in-life self-reinvention inspiring. During the reign of Cato, Olga and the "love of her life" were arrested as dissidents. They were separated by their captors and Olga never saw her partner again. She keeps her lover's memory alive by writing letters to her every day, but the loss has left her bereft and mentally unsteady. As Novey explains poetically, "trauma made a kite of the mind and there was no telling what kind of wind might take hold of it." By the end of the novel, however, harnessing the energy and support of her makeshift family, including Lena and her son, Olga writes a new chapter for herself, and this narrative thread provides a much needed uplifting element in the novel.

The end of Those Who Knew leaves something to be desired, as one wishes to see Victor crushed into dust by the full weight of the law, but his reckoning, what there is of it, occurs off-page. It may be, however, that the author's primary intent is to let the strong women of the novel (and also Freddy) have the final words. Nevertheless, Novey effectively explores the ways in which the personal is political and vice versa, and how the consequences of a dictatorial government reverberate through the years, long after the oppressor has left power.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the November 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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