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Reading guide for 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

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

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?

Moving between the island and New York City, Novey explores the cost of staying silent and the mixed rewards of speaking up in a profoundly divided country. Fleet yet powerful, fearless yet heartfelt, Those Who Knew is a timely parable about the fall of patriarchy told by a riveting cast of characters: Lena and Cristina, each raising a son on her own and connected by the senator, Victor, who is as charismatic in public as he is vicious in private; Victor's brother Freddy, an irreverent playwright uncertain what degree of loyalty he owes his only sibling; a tourist named Oscar; and at the center of it all is Olga, an aging radical who deals pot out of her used bookstore and whose life will enter its third act.

What begins as a novel about hypocrisy and a possible murder becomes ever more complex, with every turn of fate raising new questions about what finally stirs a person into action.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
  1. Idra Novey chose to set most of her novel in an unnamed place. What countries or histories came to mind for you as you were reading? Did Victor's celebrated public life and his dark private life bring any particular figures or politicians to mind? Did the fact that Novey opted not to link her setting to a particular nation's history change how you saw the power imbalances between the countries in the book in a way that you wouldn't have otherwise?
  2. Those Who Knew begins with Lena but quickly introduces several other characters points of view, creating a mosaic of narrative voices. How did that choice keep the plot moving? What blind spots among the characters became apparent to you as the story moved between them? Did seeing the conflicting versions of the same events through each characters' eyes stir your empathy in ways that surprised you? Why do you believe Novey chose to write her story this way?
  3. After staying silent for many years about his brother Victor, Freddy asks, "What it would take for there to be a true reckoning with the repressive roles men imposed on each other, a moment when acting despotic would finally be recognized as the weakness that it was." What does this question mean to you? Have any roles you've felt pressured to assume impacted a choice you made?
  4. What kind of relationship exists between our intentions and our actions? Many of the characters in this book—Oscar, Freddy, Lena, and Olga, for instance—have very honorable intentions. But sometimes their actions miss the mark, and other times their fears or ambivalence hold them back from acting at all. Does it matter that they want to be good? Did your knowledge of the characters' intentions shape the way you considered their inaction? If this novel had been written from a single perspective, what larger truths about the emotional cost of remaining silent might have gotten lost?
  5. Those Who Knew has been described as a political novel and it ultimately moves toward one of the characters running for public office. Do you see this as a political novel? Is it only a political novel? Many political novels loom large in the canon of American literature—1984, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird to name just a few. Why do you think that is? Has political fiction shaped your political views now or at any time in your life?
  6. What larger questions about masculinity and raising sons do you see Lena and Christina grappling with? Do you think Victor, in his own way, comes to consider any of these same questions in his relationship with Edgar?
  7. The novel ends with Christina and Lena watching their young sons emerge together. It's an open ending that gives an intimation of what might happen next but does not spell out any resolution. What do you think the purpose of this ending is? What did the closing image of Lena and Olga standing together in an uneasy silence leave you thinking about after finishing the novel? How do you feel about it now?
  8. Idra Novey chose not to use quotation marks to block off the dialogue in her novel and you may have wondered why. In an email to a reader who asked her about it, Novey said, "The subtlety of integrating the dialogue without quotation marks has come to feel natural after translating many works of fiction written that way in Spanish and Portuguese. I know many readers in English find that choice unnecessarily confusing and frustrating. With all choices that are a matter of taste and familiarity, there is no way to please everyone and as an author, to write freely, it's essential to remain true to what feels most natural to you." What do you think of that answer? Did you notice this and did the choice affect how you read the novel? What choice would you make?
  9. In the final section of the book, Lena and Olga reckon with the stark divide between urban and rural realities in their country, especially when it comes to education. Were you surprised at the decision Lena reluctantly makes for her son's education and if not, why?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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