© 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Telling West Virginia's Story
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Book Review: 'Those Who Knew'


Idra Novey has written a story about power. It's called "Those Who Knew." And it begins in the aging port city of an unnamed island nation 10 years after the fall of a brutal regime. The main characters are Lena, a professor, and Victor a senator. He's a rising star in his party, a potential presidential candidate. They meet as student activists, planning marches and throwing Molotov cocktails, trying to bring about the end of the dictatorship. And they begin a relationship. Victor is charming and progressive, but he's also complicated.

IDRA NOVEY: He sees himself as a victim of the regime that happened to his country. And he had an uncle who was killed by the regime. So in many ways, he is a victim. But that doesn't mean that he can't also victimize somebody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like Lena, whose family was complicit in the regime.

NOVEY: The power dynamic between Lena and Victor starts in college when he is the charismatic leader in the student movement. And she recognizes that her family puts her in a vulnerable position in the resistance among the students. And Victor leverages her shame. And he leverages her sense of complicity to silence her when he loses control in an argument that they have in the basement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That argument ended with Victor choking Lena until she passed out. Years later, as she's watched Victor become a public figure and gain power, Lena remains silent and conflicted.

NOVEY: And I think this happens with many victims of assault. They wonder what their silence will mean for others. And I think often, when someone who has been pushed into silence about assault, as in Lena's case because of the sense of shame she feels and her fear of retaliation, that she finally feels this strong urge to speak up to protect somebody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like Maria P. That's another woman with ties to Victor. She's eventually found dead, hit by a bus. And that's when Lena begins to suspect murder and has to weigh the pros and the cons of finally speaking out about her violent past with Victor.

NOVEY: Everyone has to do that math for themselves of, who will benefit from coming forward with some kind of a testimony? And how may it put you in an even more vulnerable position? And I think that math changes with time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lena isn't the only person who has a story she could tell about Victor. The book is called "Those Who Knew," after all. Eventually, and we won't say how, Victor's behavior does catch up with him. And when it does, it is confusing because Victor is violent. He's a bully. He's a shady politician. But he also has some genuinely good intentions. He's the only politician in his nation who wants to reduce the cost of education.

NOVEY: And it's very hard to reconcile those two things - that someone can publicly be doing something good and privately be doing something depraved and how to hold those two things at once. But that's the story that, I think, happens with Victor. And we've certainly seen that play out with lots of politicians in our own country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Idra Novey began writing this novel years before #MeToo and the conversations around sexual harassment. She says this story came from a personal place.

NOVEY: I think the issue for me is not my individual experience. It is the issue of how many women have had these experiences. And I think this issue of people silenced after assault isn't just prevalent here. It's prevalent all over the world. And I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to set this novel in this unnamed country to show what it's like to live with silence after assault, how it can derail your whole life was something that seemed like I could work it out within the world of a novel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Idra Novey's new novel is "Those Who Knew."

(SOUNDBITE OF GOTYE SONG, "GIVING ME A CHANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WVPB is local news, education, music, and entertainment for West Virginia.
Your donation today will help keep us strong and vital.