“There is no life to be found in violence,” writes bell hooks. “Every act of violence brings us closer to death.” This aphorism serves as a kind of psychic engine for “Those Who Knew,” Idra Novey’s mesmerizing follow-up to her acclaimed first novel, “Ways to Disappear.”
Where her previous book traffics in a kind of romantic surrealism, her new work is a political novel told from the point of view of multiple characters. Organized around the death of a college student named Maria and written before the #MeToo era, “Those Who Knew” explores the ramifications of sex, power and silence.
The novel is set on an unnamed island recovering from a period of profound political violence referred to as the Terrible Years, which ended about a decade before Maria’s death. She was a passionate young idealist who wanted the best for her tiny island nation, and may have struggled to separate those emotions from her feelings for a charismatic young senator named Victor, a leader of the student protests.
After Maria’s death, rumors circulate in the capital about the nature of her relationship with the senator she so ardently supported. Lena, a college professor and the novel’s chief protagonist, can relate: She was involved with Victor when she herself was a student.
Maria’s possible murder stirs Lena’s unquiet mind and brings all kinds of painful memories to the surface. Here is Lena lost in thought during a telephone call with her friend Olga, “But Lena was no longer listening. She had already spun too far up into the tornado of her own conclusions.”
Novey uses different modes of writing to get her points across. Lena tells her story in languid prose. Olga, a bookshop owner and local marijuana dealer, uses the ledger of her store to capture the day’s events. And Victor’s brother, the flamboyant playwright Freddy, relays his truth through dramatic scenes he doesn’t have the courage to bring to the stage.
“Those Who Knew” operates as a kind of puzzle that pulls the characters toward one another. Each scene skillfully leapfrogs over the last as the mystery of Maria’s death deepens and more secrets are revealed.
Each character contends with his or her silence regarding the events that have shaped their existence, and Novey skillfully weaves these silences into the narrative in subtle ways. For example, while keeping tabs on the mystery of Maria’s death on her computer, “Lena had felt muted, the volume of her existence on zero.”
Everyone in the book knows a great deal more than they are willing to say. Their fear of political, physical or economic retaliation keeps them quiet. In most mysteries, the people in possession of the truth are in the minority: Only those who break the social contract and commit crimes are in the know. The delight in reading these mysteries is aligning one’s self with the truth-seeker and discovering “whodunit.”
“Those Who Knew” grants no such pleasure because virtually everyone in the novel knows who the criminals are and what they did. It’s those who are willing to give voice to that breach who are in the minority, and it comes at a great price, particularly for Lena.
“She had thought there would come a point in her life when there would be fewer hours like this, of self-recrimination so wrenching and overwhelming it felt as if she were devouring herself, wordlessly slicing up her soul just to stuff it back in her own mouth.”
In another scene, Freddy recalls when he finally had the courage to confess his fears about his brother to a lover named Alex. “I don’t know anyone on this island, Alex had replied, who isn’t one degree removed from more brutality than they can bear to admit.”
“Those Who Knew” is an uncannily prescient novel that animates the #MeToo movement and speaks to the depth of the moral quagmire we currently find ourselves in. The novel’s exploration of how silence is weaponized by institutions, which permit those who commit horrible abuses to get away with them, feels tailor-made for our times.
The tragedy of political violence is that it teaches its victims how violence can be used as a means to get what one wants. Thus, victims become victimizers in scenarios of their own making that play out on stages big and small. In a broken judicial system like Lena’s, knowing is not enough. One must speak and bear witness to the truth in all of its ugliness to combat the tyranny of silence that allows the wicked to thrive.
“Those Who Knew” is the rare novel that challenges its readers to consider what their silence is costing us. When historians write about this political moment, our collective willingness to speak out will go a long way in determining whether we are at the nadir of our democracy or if the Terrible Years are still to come.
Ruland is an author and host of the reading series “Vermin on the Mount.” He lives in San Diego.
Viking: 256 pp., $26