Named a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by * NPR * Esquire * O, The Oprah Magazine * Real Simple * BBC * PopSugar * Bustle * Kirkus Reviews * Lit Hub
“A gripping, astute, and deeply humane political thriller.” —The Boston Globe
“Mesmerizing [and] uncannily prescient.”—Los Angeles Times
A taut, timely novel about what a powerful politician thinks he can get away with and the group of misfits who finally bring him down, from the award-winning author of Ways to Disappear.
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?
What follows is a riveting exploration of the cost of staying silent and the mixed rewards of speaking up in a profoundly divided country. Those Who Knew confirms Novey's place as an essential new voice in American fiction.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.48(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Idra Novey is the award-winning author of the novel Ways to Disappear. Her work has been translated into ten languages and she's translated numerous authors from Spanish and Portuguese, most recently Clarice Lispector. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Read an Excerpt
In the aging port city
of an island nation
near the start of the new millennium
Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident, a woman reached into her tote bag and found a sweater inside that didn't belong to her. Standing at the register in the supermarket, she had reached in for her wallet, which was there, as were her keys and the bundled up green bulk of her scarf.
Only now there was also this worn black sweater. I don't remember walking away from my cart, she told the cashier, but I must have, and somebody stuck this in my bag by accident.
She held the sweater up over the register and saw that a white zigzag ran across the front like the pulse line on a heart monitor. The broadness of the neckline brought to mind a sweater she'd worn in college. She'd worn it constantly until she lost it at the last protest before the election that finally brought Cato down. She'd liked the open feeling of the sweater's neckline, though it was always shifting and, like her confidence then, had required continual adjustment.
You could just keep it, the cashier said.
No, no-it isn't mine. She handed off the sweater, and while the cashier balled it up once more, she inserted her credit card to pay for the eggs and oil she'd come for and the tin of lemon shortbread she hadn't.
Ten minutes later, outside her first-floor rental on a steep curve of the port city's longest road, she reached into her bag again for her keys. And, standing in front of her door, felt everything plummet inside her as if she'd just stepped into the empty shaft of an elevator.
It was back, bunched up again inside her bag. The same worn black cotton and white pulse line. The same eerily familiar open neck. She was certain she'd handed it off to the cashier.
And then, perhaps because she had once risked her life in a similar garment and still regarded that time as the pivotal aspect of who she was, she lifted the sweater over her head and pulled it on.
Olga was sweeping stray bits of marijuana leaves off the floor of her bookstore when her friend Lena called, panicking about something having to do with a sweater. Hold on, Olga said into her cordless phone, I can't hear you. I'm back in Poetry. Her reception was far better up in Conspiracy, near the front windows. She could hear clearly enough at the register, too, where she rang up the occasional book-and, yes, also sold a formidable amount of weed.
Of course, I know it doesn't make sense, Lena said with the declarative tone common to her generation. I opened my tote bag and it was back, which I know is impossible, but here it is.
I think you're reading too much Saramago, Olga said as she pushed open the front door and stepped outside. What you need to do is sit down with a cup of tea and read someone who doesn't stray so much from reality, someone like-
It's hers, Lena interrupted. I knew something about the sweater was familiar. I just looked up Maria P.'s obituary. She has it on in the photo. Or, no, maybe it's more of a check mark on her sweater, but still.
On whose sweater?
In front of the store now, Olga bent down despite the stiff protest of her knees to remove an empty bag of potato chips someone had tossed in her tulips. She didn't see why, just because she used a claw-footed bathtub for a flower bed, she should be subjected to more trash than anyone else on the hill.
Today, however, there was rampant rubbish for everyone. A scattering of run-over cabbage leaves had formed a grimy pattern across the width of the street. In her exile years, Olga had missed what the love of her life had called the accidental garbage art up this high in the hills above the port, where the city rarely sent anyone to clean the streets. Along the opposite curb, someone had tossed what looked like a full carton of milk, the splattered liquid now trickling gritty and increasingly gray down the hill, forming rather lovely squares around the cobblestones.
Are you listening? Lena asked on the phone. Did you fix your internet? You have to look up the obituary for Maria P. She's the student I told you I kept seeing in photos with Victor at the tuition marches. The way she was beaming at him at the podium, Olga, I had a sick feeling. I know he pushed her in front of that bus, Lena said-her declarations coming faster now-I'm certain of it.
Oh stop, you're not certain, Olga said, reminding Lena how many people got run over by buses barreling down the hills toward the port all the time. Maybe the girl was talking on one of those stupid new cellular phones, Olga said, and forgot to look up the road.
Maria was on a presidential fellowship, Lena said, and in civil engineering. That's not a person who would absentmindedly step in front of a diesel bus she could hear rumbling toward her from a block away.
Unless she was drunk, Olga said.
But Lena was no longer listening. She had already spun too far up into the tornado of her own conclusions. In a lower, more determined voice Lena declared Maria must have sent the sweater from some kind of afterlife limbo, the closest sweater Maria could find to her own. The design is a little different, Lena went on, but what else could a sweater that similar mean? Maria must be stuck in some kind of weigh station for murder victims and found out there what I let Victor get away with. Maybe she'll be stuck in a limbo state until I do something.
Olga tried to point out that Lena was projecting a considerable amount of meaning onto a sweater that could just be an odd coincidence. It's possible, Olga said, the cashier didn't want to bother with the Lost and Found on her meager five-minute break and decided to just slip it back in your bag.
But what about the obituary? Lena's voice rose again. I have the photo open on my computer, Olga-the sweater has the same open neckline and the check mark on the front is practically a zigzag. It's from her, I'm certain of it. And I could go to the police right now. I drank at the Minnow in my student days. I know that curve on Trinity Hill where she was killed. I could describe it, how I was walking up Trinity that night and saw Victor push her in front of that bus.
Except you didn't see him do that, Olga pointed out, insisting Lena come up to the bookstore to talk this through. You just have a hunch, Olga reminded her, and he has the backing of the entire Truth and Justice Party.
A week after a bus ran over a certain student activist on Trinity Hill, a prominent young senator by the name of Victor turned to the woman beside him in bed and made an offer. Through her ninth-floor windows, the view was pure blue, a few cruise ships moving along the divide between water and sky. There were no other buildings erected as flush against the ocean as this one. It jutted out further on the rocks than any of the other high-rises on this coveted coastline north of the port. The first time he'd slept here, months ago, had been partially out of curiosity about what it would be like to have his way with a woman who possessed such an exceptional view.
Waking each day to a horizon this continuous, he thought, could change the way a man approached things. Especially waking beside a woman who'd grown up among the founders of the TJP who still controlled the party-and therefore nearly every district on the island-since Cato. And he needed to do something to put an end to any rumors that might be circulating in the Senate behind his back, or among Maria's friends. She had assured him she'd told no one about her trips to his apartment, but she was a girl, and girls were feline, always purring up to one another with their secrets.
Marriage hadn't occurred to him as a potential solution until this morning. However, until this morning he had never lingered quite as long beside this meticulously maintained woman and her singular view. The handful of times he'd slept with her last summer, he'd lost interest too quickly in what she had to say to stick around after he woke. He preferred women with more ideas of their own, ideas they were hungry for him to hear and respond to-he relished being the one to dispense the sentence or two of affirmation they were after, and gauge what might happen after that.
But he'd been careful not to let the door shut with a woman this connected. He'd continued to call every few weeks and tell her he was just too overwhelmed to come by and see her-which had been true. He hadn't seen much of anyone. Except for the afternoons he took off to wait in his apartment for Maria to arrive with her latest scribbled calculations for eliminating tuition.
I hope it's obvious that I'm falling in love with you, he said to the woman as he watched her draw up her smooth, toned legs and smile. In fact, he continued, I'm wondering what you might say if I proposed right now.
On one condition, she replied, and Victor braced himself for an inquiry, a promise that he'd had no more than passing contact with that student who'd introduced him several times at the marches, the one killed last week above the Minnow.
But the woman's only condition was that he promise to always speak well of her father.
Victor propped his head on his hand to consider her more closely. Her robust chin was at odds with her thin face, and her augmented breasts, alluring as they were, looked out of sync with the otherwise blunt angles of her body. She'd made a far more striking impression coming toward him at the cocktail party where they'd first met than she did up this close in bed. The event had been for one of the most influential senators in the TJP. Victor had been standing alone by the windows, probing his teeth with the trio of toothpicks he'd accumulated from the lobster balls, when a trim woman in a strapless dress approached him, her smile as promising yet unquantifiable as the locked contents of a jewel box. She'd introduced herself as the senator's eldest daughter. Cristina, she'd added, as if it were an afterthought.
Under the sheets with him now, Cristina drew a little closer. In bed with me, she said, you can criticize my father all you want-just never in public.
Victor extended his hand and made much ado of tucking a lock of her lightened hair behind her ear. Together, he said, I think we could really wake up this sedated island.
Oh, I think we will. Cristina gave a playful bite to his shoulder, after which Victor mounted her more tenderly than he'd mounted any woman in years. For it was clear now she was going to marry him regardless. He didn't have to accept her one condition, and she wasn't going to inquire about Maria P.
In lieu of performing a Google search, Olga was rolling a robust joint for her friend. She hadn't gotten around to fixing her internet-or the plumbing for that matter. What for? She felt lighter inside when she deliberately streamlined her requirements of the world. The less she needed, the less guilty she felt about continuing to exist while the love of her life had not. When she needed to relieve herself, she forced her reluctant knees to deliver her out the back door of the bookstore and down the crumbling stairwell to her abode in the row of homes below.
If her neighbors living along the same staircase glimpsed her gray head bobbing slowly by and guessed she was headed home to relieve her bowels again, well, that was their problem. They already had some idea of what soldiers had done to her. Everyone in walking distance of the bookstore knew some rumored version of what she must have endured at the outset of the Terrible Years, when she'd been rounded up with hundreds of other student protesters. Although what had been done to the love of her life, right in front of her, was known to no one.
Her mythical status as one of the few exiles who'd returned to the island had even found its way into various travel guides, which caused a trickle of young backpackers from the northern country that had hosted her. The backpackers shuffled into the store greasy-haired and eager to convey what they'd learned in college about their government's insidious meddling in the rigged election that put Cato in power-as if any of it might be news to her. As if she might not be aware that their secret service had supplied the weapons and created the media panic about a Communist Threat that had barely existed.
It was for these earnest-faced young northerners that Olga had put together the Conspiracy section under the front window. She kept it stocked with the crumbling leather-bound volumes of Trotsky and Marx that people continued to find buried in their backyards when they dug a hole for a dead dog or to uproot some unwanted shrub. Owning such books now didn't mean much of anything, which was why people in the hills kept selling her their disinterred editions of Lenin's Practice and Theory of Revolution for less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes. Olga then sold the editions for triple that to her eager young northerners as souvenirs.
A few days earlier, she'd had an unusual northerner come in, a fellow in his midthirties so freshly bathed he still smelled of soap and asking if she carried poetry. Even odder, he'd pulled a scone for her out of his bag from some baking he'd done that morning in his hostel, a situation so unexpected, and delicious, she'd reported it to Lena.
Most hours, when she had any customers at all-either for cannabis or literature-they were from the new liberal arts college up the hill. She had initially been put off by the righteous air of its young professors who'd taken part in the marches to get rid of Cato, especially Lena, whose haughty enunciation had immediately given her away as hailing from a conservative private school up the coast.
Reading Group Guide
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?