When it comes to the crimes of the powerful, do we have an obligation to come forward? In the timely “Those Who Knew,” Novey examines the price of disclosing harm.
Is it worth it to speak out about assault and sexual predation, especially when the perpetrator is a high-profile politician hailed as a hero in progressive circles? What does it take for a powerful, charismatic man to finally be held accountable for his crimes? Idra Novey cuts to the heart of these questions in “Those Who Knew,” a novel that feels simultaneously timely and timeless.
Lena, a college professor on an unnamed island freed from a brutal regime 10 years before the book begins, has watched from a distance as a young politician championing progressive causes becomes the leader of a political movement and a contender for the presidency. Unbeknownst to her students, who look to Victor as their beacon of hope, Lena has a dark, violent history with the politician. Before he was a household name, Victor assaulted and nearly killed Lena during her days as a student activist.
Like many survivors of assault, Lena has compartmentalized the experience and stayed silent about Victor’s violent side, doing her best to move forward with her life and forge her own path. Despite her family’s wealth, Lena opts to live in a modest home on the island. Her closest confidante is Olga, a victim of the regime who now runs a bookstore that doubles as a cannabis shop.
But despite her best efforts, Lena’s past can’t be buried. When she learns that a young campaign worker, Maria P., has been hit and killed by a bus, she suspects it wasn’t an accident — and that Victor was involved. Maria’s death presents Lena with a moral quandary that has been a staple of the past year’s news cycle and its surrounding discussions: Is it worth it to speak the truth about a powerful man’s crimes? What is the price for coming forward? Will Lena be believed, or will she be dismissed and re-victimized? These are questions that far too many have had to grapple with, and hit painfully close to home for those of us who have watched from a distance as our perpetrators thrive professionally and personally.
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Novey’s premise is straightforward and the book’s message isn’t especially subtle, but she deftly avoids cliché by employing a unique narrative style that includes the perspectives of all six main characters and a variety of chapter formats. Olga’s perspective appears mostly in letters to her lover Sara, who she lost during the reign of the brutal regime. The perspective of Victor’s brother Freddy, a gay playwright who wages an internal battle between family loyalty and his suspicion that Victor isn’t the charismatic hero he portrays, appears fittingly in script form. Readers are also privy to the experiences of Victor’s politically convenient wife Cristina, and Oscar, a man Lena shares a brief romance with as she reels from the news of Maria’s death. Even Victor himself gets his say — but not his redemption — in several brief chapters from his point of view.
The downside to this format is that because the novel is on the short side, not every character is as fully developed as they could be. This is especially true of Olga, who could easily have her own entire book. A deeper dive into Cristina’s point of view might also have been beneficial. The supportive political wife is a longstanding trope, one most recently embodied by Ashley Kavanaugh, who sat with her husband, Brett Kavanaugh, in an interview with Fox News, as he responded to questions about assault allegations, and interrupted her when her time came to speak. Getting into the head of such a woman (albeit a fictional one) seems a missed opportunity.
Less than two months before the publication of “Those Who Knew,” Dr. Christine Blasey Ford courageously testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was dismaying — but not especially surprising — when her story wasn’t taken seriously. But survivors, many of whom have only just begun to speak up, aren’t going anywhere. Neither are authors like Novey, whose depictions of the profound, lasting impact of sexual violence serve to challenge the idea that some transgressions can be overlooked for “the greater good.”
“Those Who Knew” by Idra Novey, Viking, 256 pp., $26