Those Who Knew: A Novel

  • Review
By – October 8, 2018

A lit­tle learn­ing is a dan­ger­ous thing. Or so wrote the eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry poet Alexan­der Pope. But in her lat­est nov­el, Those Who Knew, Idra Novey argues that the real dan­ger lies in fail­ing to act upon the learn­ing and knowl­edge — how­ev­er lim­it­ed — that one possesses.

Novey’s sto­ry is part crime thriller, part polit­i­cal com­men­tary, part char­ac­ter study. The time is vague — the start of the new mil­len­ni­um” — and the set­ting shifts between two equal­ly vague, although rec­og­niz­able, loca­tions: an island nation,” rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a Cuba-like state; and the north,” a thin­ly veiled Unit­ed States. In leav­ing these places unnamed, Novey sug­gests that despite their par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, the rela­tion­ship between them is struc­tur­al, arche­typ­al even. Specif­i­cal­ly, she demon­strates that, left unchecked, their respec­tive economies and sys­tems of gov­ern­ment (com­mu­nism and cap­i­tal­ism, dic­ta­tor­ship and democ­ra­cy) will ulti­mate­ly expose their own hypocrisies and come into con­flict. Crack­downs, resis­tance, rev­o­lu­tion, and dis­il­lu­sion will fol­low, and the pat­tern will repeat itself.

But what Novey is most inter­est­ed in are the peo­ple caught up in these inter­twin­ing sys­tems. How they behave, giv­en what they know.

Among the sev­er­al points of view that Novey suc­cess­ful­ly jug­gles are those of three indi­vid­u­als — a col­lege pro­fes­sor, a book­store own­er, and a play­wright — who are cer­tain, or have good rea­son to sus­pect, the iden­ti­ty of a mur­der­er. Each is tor­ment­ed by the knowl­edge, but for var­i­ous rea­sons — fear, ambi­tion, love — nev­er con­tacts the author­i­ties. Each has fought against injus­tice at large, but shrinks from that fight when it hits too close to home. They speak to them­selves, some­times to each oth­er. They rumi­nate, or they write, employ­ing screen­plays and jour­nals as con­fes­sion­als. But most­ly they pro­tect their knowl­edge, deny­ing it the pub­lic air­ing it needs in order to make a difference.

There are two notable excep­tions in the book — sec­ondary char­ac­ters who act, or at least appear to have act­ed, for the com­mon good. The first is Sara, a dead woman we only encounter through anoth­er character’s jour­nal entries. The sec­ond is her niece, also named Sara. Both are Jew­ish, described as brazen … fierce and kind.” And though they seem to be some­what periph­er­al fig­ures, they are actu­al­ly cen­tral to the nar­ra­tive, as they appear to be the only ones will­ing to sac­ri­fice, to put truth over self-inter­est. Giv­en the arche­typ­al com­po­nent of the sto­ry, one has to assume that Novey’s deci­sion to asso­ciate this qual­i­ty with Jew­ish peo­ple is inten­tion­al. Per­haps because Jews, whom she also por­trays as sub­jects of per­se­cu­tion, have learned the hard way the con­se­quences of silence and inaction.

What­ev­er her view on this mat­ter, how­ev­er, the sto­ry is orig­i­nal, lay­ered, and provoca­tive, though not with­out its flaws. Case in point is the heavy reliance on jour­nal entries, scripts, and news accounts to tell the tale. Styl­is­ti­cal­ly, the method is inter­est­ing and ini­tial­ly serves the plot. As the book pro­gress­es, how­ev­er, it occa­sion­al­ly becomes tedious, inter­rupt­ing the nar­ra­tive flow. The con­clu­sion also seems a bit rushed and con­trived. Over­all, how­ev­er, Those Who Knew is a pow­er­ful read, espe­cial­ly for those of us who won­der what to do with dif­fi­cult truths we know.

Ona Rus­sell is the author of three award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies. Her lat­est stand-alone nov­el, Son of Noth­ing­ness, was pub­lished by Sun­stone Press in 2020.

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