Review: Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

Those Who Knew is a novel about a senator with a violent past in a small unnamed island country.  It’s about about the intersections of politics, money and influence.  I appreciated the writing style of this author and much of the book worked for me, although I didn’t care for the generic location. 

In her student activist days, Lena admired Victor greatly for his passionate fight to improve access to education on the island.  Their affair, and Lena’s work as a protester, ended the day Victor viciously assaulted her. Lena is still haunted by the assault, though she told no one about it except her close friend Olga, an older woman who runs a bookstore.  When Lena hears about a young woman working for Victor who dies mysteriously, she’s convinced he had a hand in her death.  But Victor is extremely powerful and it’s a small island; any attempt to verify her suspicions could have serious consequences for her and her family, and he’ll have much more credibility than she will. 

Novey also refers frequently to the island’s political relationship with the United States, and how the U.S. supported its oppressive political regime without ever taking a real interest in the lives of its people. 

There’s a lot to unpack in this short novel, and Novey’s storytelling is engaging and creative.  The story is told not only from Lena’s perspective, but through the diaries of Olga and the scripts of Victor’s brother, a playwright.  Freddy’s scripts tell the story of his brother and their father, and how violence is both influenced by their political world and handed down from one generation to the next. 

Novey covers a lot of issues without going into great depth.  Aside from Lena and Olga, her characters are kept fairly superficial: the well-meaning but naïve American tourist, the insightful artist, the ambitious but troubled politician. 

The main detractor for me in this book was the setting, an “unnamed island.”  I’m not a fan of this plot device, for the main reason that I read about other countries to learn about them.  When an author sets a work in a specific place and time, she’s responsible for portraying that place and time with historical accuracy.  Using an unnamed setting feels lazy to me, and it also feels like a missed opportunity.  The author could have created a fictional locale or chosen a place that has the political issues she wants to write about (and I’m sure there are many).  Instead I found the references to the island distracting, pulling me away from characters and a story I found interesting.

Still, the issues raised are important and timely, the two main characters are thoughtfully developed, and I appreciated the way Novey weaves together a number of complex issues. 

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Viking Books.  The book was published November 6. 

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