Book Review: THOSE WHO KNEW, too many threads overwhelm the narrative

Novey, Idra - Those Who KnewThose Who Knew
Idra Novey

Those Who Knew opens in the capital port city of an island which I assumed to be in Latin America. Lena, a former student activist, feels she is haunted by Maria, a current student activist advocating for free tuition on the island. Lately, Maria had been introducing a young, up-and-coming senator, Victor, at rallies, but she tragically died when hit by a bus. Lena, who had a bad experience with Victor while dating him in college, convinced herself that Victor was responsible for Maria’s death, even though it was ruled an accident. Lena, however, reluctantly decided to stay silent because she feared losing her job as a professor at a university where Victor’s policies were very popular, and because her wealthy family, supporters, of the previous regime, might be scapegoated if she came forward.

Lena wasn’t the only person who had knowledge of Victor’s violent tendencies. His brother, Freddy, was aware of Victor’s past, but was tied to Victor through family loyalty. Victor’s wife, Cristina, saw glimpses of Victor’s rancor, but was quiet out of love and to protect herself and her son. Cristina’s father, a senior politician, used his influence to shield Victor because of his own financial and political interests and to protect his daughter and grandson.

These figures had varying degrees of guilt and self-recrimination, but it was unclear if any would risk their self-interests to stop Victor’s cycle of seduction of violence toward young women in his orbit. And, if Victor was stopped, who might take up the progressive policies he advocated in regards to tuition reform?

In addition to the issue of Victor and sexual harassment and violence, running parallel are concerns about the island transitioning from a dictatorial regime to a democracy, including issues of corruption, funding for education, free press, women in government, and the influence of members of the prior regime, as well as the role of the United States (the north) in its development.

Because Those Who Knew is so ambitious in its themes, its plot becomes rather lost, and at times, Novey engages in frustratingly deliberate obfuscation. Most of the characters are prickly and often it’s hard to find points of empathy or engagement. I especially found the subplot about Lena’s romance with American Oliver unnecessary and off-putting. In this case, I think the novel would have been stronger if it had been more focused on the central narrative about Victor, hidden knowledge, guilt, and consequences.

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