Novels written to fit into particular cultural moments often end up feeling dated, sometimes even as early as when they hit bookstores. But then there are novels that fall into relevancy by accident, allowing them to feel both immediate and timeless. Idra Novey’s second novel, “Those Who Knew,” is such a book. Coming out the day of the midterm elections and soon after our newest Supreme Court justice was accused of assaulting several women — and then got confirmed anyway — the novel’s obsession with silence, its damnation of false liberalism, and the fine line it draws between complicity and trauma feel eerily prescient.
The book opens with death. It is the early 2000s, a week after Maria P., a young activist and student, is killed by a passing bus on an unnamed island — cultural clues imply it to be Cuba, or a version of it. Lena, a professor on the island, finds herself in possession of a sweater with mysterious origins that resembles the one gracing Maria P.’s figure in her obituary. Panicking, she rushes to tell her friend Olga that Maria P. is trying to communicate from the afterlife: “Maria must be stuck in some kind of way station for murder victims and found out there what I let Victor get away with,” Lena tells Olga. Olga, a once-exiled revolutionary who watched members of the island’s now-vanquished dictatorial regime torture her lover, rolls Lena a fat joint to calm her nerves.
Victor is the island’s most popular young senator, and Lena was involved with him some 10 years prior, before the regime was toppled. Their relationship ended after he nearly choked her to death in a move that calls to mind recent testimony regarding allegations of male violence: “When he pushed her against the wall and grabbed her throat, she’d thought he was just panicking for a second. But then he’d smashed his palm over her nostrils.” Charismatic, espousing all the correct liberal ideals — free tuition, income equality — Victor is a political animal, and Lena suspects him of having been involved with Maria P.’s apparently accidental death. But she says nothing, because who would believe her? And besides, she has no proof, other than mysterious garments and the traumatic memories that keep resurfacing as Victor’s rise to power is profiled in one newspaper article after another.
The novel unspools over several years, as Lena becomes pregnant, moves off the island and then moves back, and while her story is central, Victor; his wife, Cristina; his brother Freddy; Olga; and a northerner (read: American) named Oscar all get their own sections. Novey manages in brief, poetic chapters to capture each of these characters’ defining features: Victor’s simple cruelty and complex desire for power; Cristina’s privileged upbringing and lack of curiosity; Freddy’s frustrated talent as he writes an experimental play about Victor that he can’t bring to light out of a troubled sense of loyalty; Olga’s frozen existence as she refuses, for a long time, to change anything about her bookstore-cum-weed-dispensary; and Oscar’s naive, well-meaning yet bumbling nature. Somehow, though the book is slim, we know these characters and their desires intimately by the end.
Perhaps even more central than Lena’s story is the book’s focus on power and silence, how the former is so often achieved by securing the latter. Olga’s silence is the result of witnessing and experiencing terrible violence that sent her into exile, yet followed her there — once, on a bus, she thought she saw the man who tortured her lover, and so she trailed him, “because trauma made a kite of the mind and there was no telling what kind of wind might take hold of it.” Lena’s silence is secure, Victor assumes, since the longer she remains hushed, the more power Victor gains, and the less chance she has of being taken seriously. Freddy, meanwhile, suspects his brother of being far less charming than he seems in public, but as a gay man and penniless artist, he isn’t entirely sure of his power to act. Moreover, his and Victor’s uncle was killed by the regime, and their father instilled in them a loyalty to brotherly connection.
Cristina’s silence begins with a lack of knowledge befitting the privileged, which becomes a necessary protective measure as she tries to shield her son from his father’s growing scandal. And Oscar, the northerner, though he knew nothing of Victor, also knew next to nothing of the island and its past, and his ignorance becomes the breaking point of his and Lena’s budding relationship. A disaster in his homeland occurs just after they meet — strongly implied to be 9/11 — and in his shocked state, watching the news, he murmurs, “It’s incomprehensible,” to which Lena, having grown up with a brutal regime, replies, “Is it, though?”
Novey — a poet and translator as well as a novelist — is a skillful wordsmith with descriptions that are poetic yet never overwrought: “Once the sun emerged,” she writes of the island, “the port city looked less like a soiled and forgotten heap of laundry.” “Those Who Knew” is not only an important book about silence and its consequences, but also a sheer pleasure to read.
Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer, the founder and host of the blog The Other Stories and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
By Idra Novey
Viking. 256 pp. $26.