Cover image for Those who knew : [a novel] / Idra Novey.
Those who knew : [a novel] / Idra Novey.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Viking, [2018]

Physical Description:
248 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Subtitle from jacket.
"On an unnamed island country ten years after the collapse of a brutal regime, Lena suspects the powerful senator she was involved with back in her student activist days may be guilty of murder. She says nothing, assuming no one will believe her, given her family's shameful support of the former regime and her lack of evidence. They are the same reasons she told no one, a decade earlier, what happened with the senator while they were dating"-- Provided by publisher.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
NOV Book Adult General Collection

On Order



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.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Novey's propulsive second novel (after Ways to Disappear) follows multiple perspectives of those affected and connected by Victor, a sometimes brutal yet widely beloved man in a position of political power. In an unnamed island nation in the early aughts, Maria P., a young woman who has been introducing the liberal young senator at his rallies, turns up dead. Lena, a professor in her 30s-who herself experienced firsthand the violence and unpredictability that simmer beneath the senator's wide appeal when they were student radicals together-believes that Victor must be responsible for the woman's death, and feels compelled to compensate for the decade she has spent in silence about him. While Lena obsesses over her allegation, a wide cast of quirky characters-most notably Freddy, the senator's gay brother; Olga, a radical former exile and stoner; and Christina, Victor's politically convenient wife-and their own perspectives help fill in the senator's other crimes and shortcomings, as well as the circumstances of a changing nation in a changing world. Novey's storytelling is taut and her diction sharp, and though there are some unnecessary structural turns (scenes from a play Freddy is writing about his brother, newspaper reports), the book nevertheless has a striking sense of momentum. Add in a slight and intriguing sense of the supernatural, and the result is a provocative novel that has the feel of a thriller. (Nov.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

IDRA NOVEY'S TIMING is impeccable, though she probably wishes it weren't - for the sake of the Union. Her second novel, "Those Who Knew," features a popular politician who has a history of assaulting women, including one attack in which he clamps his hand down over the face of our protagonist, Lena, nearly suffocating her until she passes out. The book is a thriller of sorts, as Lena flashes back to that moment, haunted by the death of another young woman she's sure the politician, a sociopathic senator named Victor, has murdered. He could kill again - thanks to Lena's silence and the silence of others, including Victor's homosexual playwright brother, Freddy. Freddy writes an experimental drama exposing Victor, which is interspersed in bits and pieces between the short chapters of the novel, but he locks it in a desk drawer. This is not so much a Whodunit as a When Will They Speak Up? "Those Who Knew" opens on an unnamed island 10 years after the fall of a murderous American-backed regime, and Victor has emerged as a young liberal savior, a leader from the Truth and Justice Party. But Victor is just as bad as, or worse than, his predecessors. Lena, a rebel whose family members were supporters of the old regime, thinks that if she blew the whistle on the beloved senator, no one would believe her. In addition to his assaults on women he claims to love, Victor is involved in a farm scandal, which leaves a lake of swine feces stinking up the countryside. It's only a matter of time before someone smells the rot. Novey's first book, the critically acclaimed "Ways to Disappear," took place in Brazil and tackled similarly unpleasant subject matter - a kidnapping, a severed ear, a writer disappearing up a tree, a strained mother-daughter relationship and a hotel going up in flames. It had bitesize chapters as well, interspersed with faux dictionary definitions rather than the intermittent play scenes and diary entries here. But somehow there was a sense of magic to that last book, an optimism among the dark alleys and dysfunctional family relationships. It was like the caipirinhas that its Brazilian characters kept mixing - sweet but also sour, and packing a punch. Alas, there are no cocktails in this novel, but if there were, they would have to be Dark and Stormies. It would make sense to credit the Trump administration for the darkness that has overtaken Novey this time around, but she began this book long before the presidential election or the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Its release fell on Nov. 6 - an important Election Day, with crucial congressional seats on the line. The novel's political intrigue and corruption, and the sadness that accompanies the sense of helplessness in the face of a great evil, is prescient. Maybe Novey saw it coming. After all, she grew up in the swing state of Pennsylvania. The post-revolutionary port city she draws here resembles a "soiled and forgotten heap of laundry." A mark on Lena's coat is the "muddy color of a period stain . . . saturating the cotton of her jacket as if someone had slowly died in it." Another character, Olga, a dissident bookstore owner and pot dealer who pines for her dead lover, hates overcast days so much that "she would find herself longing most acutely for a heart attack, or an aneurysm - anything to get it over with already." Her shop is named Seek the Sublime or Die. "Those Who Knew" takes several stabs at magical realism. A sweater like one worn by the young woman Lena suspects Victor of having killed ends up in Lena's bag. The girl's bra winds up in her dresser drawer. A slaughtered animal reveals itself to be a dead woman, if just for a second. Time flashes forward bit by bit, revealing an unplanned pregnancy, a few bad marriages, references to 9/11 and criticism of American foreign policy, but at times these seem like misplaced puzzle pieces rather than part of a coherent, hard-won whole. Novey's first book was a meditation on writing itself, on language and translation (Novey started out as a poet and a translator of Spanish and Portuguese writers). Literary allusions are sprinkled through the new novel: a bit of Kundera here, some Yeats and Akhmatova there. Novey tips her hat to "Sailing to Byzantium," its "aging narrator, drifting like an ancient paltry thing, no more than a coat on a stick." And we feel the tired futility in her bones - and ours. There are beautifully bright details - fish scales glistening like sequins, the layers of a croissant flaked and dissolving on Lena's tongue - that keep us hungry for more, turning the pages toward some sort of resolution. But the villain's comeuppance seems like an afterthought rather than the cathartic moment it should be. And a last-minute attempt at an optimistic future seems tacked on as well: two boys playing together in a field and Olga throwing her hat into the political ring. Olga, in the reflective diary entries that she writes to her dead lover, asks at one point about Joan of Arc: "How did she stay true to the voices in her head as they led her into the fire?" How indeed? Novey seems older, tired and slightly hopeless. But, then, aren't we all? HELENE STAPINSKI is the author of three memoirs, of which the latest is "Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy."

Library Journal Review

The personal is political in this new novel from Novey (Ways To Disappear), which takes place on an unnamed island popular with volunteer tourists from the United States. Activist Lena discovers a sweater in her handbag that belongs to a dead, possibly murdered, student activist named Maria P. Does the sweater really belong to Maria? Did Lena's ex-boyfriend, popular and populist politician Victor, murder her? Victor is on the cusp of a politically advantageous marriage, and he has a history of violence that Lena experienced firsthand when they were students. But unlike Maria, Lena came from money. Her family had ties to the oligarchy that ran the island during her revolutionary days, and she survived. Lena wants justice for Maria but is haunted by her instead. While Lena is the primary focus of this novel, the perspective shifts among the characters throughout. By concentrating on the interconnected and very personal stories of each, Novey negotiates the surreal reality of an aging port city that is both victim and beneficiary of globalization. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction and those who enjoy stories set in Latin America. [See Prepub Alert, 5/14/18.]-Pamela Mann, St. Mary's Coll. Lib., MD © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I 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. Excerpted from Those Who Knew by Idra Novey All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.