A destabilizing, almost hallucinatory unreality wisps through Idra Novey’s “Those Who Knew,” a gripping, astute, and deeply humane political thriller. Yet it’s less about the powerful than about the people they hurt, and those who might stop them if they could muster the courage.
In the 10 years since Lena split with her college boyfriend, Victor, she has been careful to stay away from him. Even then, he’d had loads of charisma. Even then, he’d had a problem with rage.
He was handsome, too, a student leader protesting the repressive regime that ruled their island nation. Joining the cause, Lena was eager to help — and steeped in guilt about her wealthy family’s complicity with the government.
“When Victor told her she needed to be more brazen at the marches, to remember that her family could get her released with no more than a phone call, she had nodded and said of course, had begun throwing more Molotovs than all of the other girls combined.”
Then came the day when she lost a flyer she’d been working on, full of covert details about their next march. It was the sort of slip-up that could put them in danger, and Victor nearly killed her for it, choking her until she blacked out.
That chilling, bone-deep memory is how she knows — and to her it is a certainty — that Victor murdered Maria P., a young woman whose recent death was supposedly a tragic accident. In the new government, he’s a senator, hugely popular with students. Maria P. had been one of them.
Now items of the younger woman’s clothing (a sweater, a bra) are appearing among Lena’s belongings, as if placed there by Maria P. herself, from the great beyond.
“She’s not going to leave me alone until I do something,” Lena tells her friend, Olga, a radical bookseller who has a thriving sideline in marijuana sales. She also has a pain-filled distant past in which she was rounded up by the regime with her beloved, during a period known as the Terrible Years. Of the two of them, only Olga came out alive.
Set in an unnamed country that seems to be South America, and in another unnamed country that is definitely the United States, “Those Who Knew” has a core of violent menace. Around it, though, Novey (whose first novel, “Ways to Disappear,” in 2016, was about an American translator in pursuit of a famous Brazilian writer) has constructed a world of characters who are funny, warm, and often sympathetic, even when they behave very badly.
Take Oliver, for instance — a backpacking baker who is deep into his 20s when he arrives on the island in 2001, still unsure what he wants to do with his life. Puppy-like in his desire to please, he means well, but he’s inexcusably ignorant about the culture he’s visiting, and about his country’s gruesome role in its bloody history. He is, in other words, an American.
When we trail Oliver into the future, as the novel stretches over a half dozen years, we find him married to a dreadful woman who is the book’s only lapse into two dimensions. Even the poisonous Victor elicits from us a rush of pity when we glimpse him as a child of 5. In a dramatic scene written by his playwright brother, Freddy, their father instills in Victor the merciless code of masculinity, and we watch him as he’s carefully taught.
A poet and translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature, Novey has found a felicitous form for this novel, which is the literary equivalent of a film constructed from short cuts. There are only a few moments — a page or three — told from any given perspective before it shifts. This keeps the pace fast and momentum strong, even as each shard of the story invites savoring.
That includes the intermittent scenes from Freddy’s secret, subversive plays, always rooted in family history that he is too loyal to divulge, and pages from the transaction log that Olga keeps for her bookstore, the spectacularly named Seek the Sublime or Die. Olga isn’t so much tracking her sparse sales with the log, though, as she is using it to write wry, poignant updates to Sara, her dead beloved.
Olga and Freddy, like Lena, suffer from what Freddy calls “soul damage” — a kind of moral corruption whose severity varies, but whose existence comes from having lived under the regime, forced to find out just how compromised and closed-mouthed they were willing to become to survive.
Glancing backward at history and forward at legacy, this is a novel about what happens when good people witness evil and say nothing. But it’s a hopeful novel, too. So they’re going to have to bravely make some noise.
THOSE WHO KNEW
By Idra Novey
Viking, 248 pp., $26Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.