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'Those Who Knew' Is An Explosive Moral Molotov Cocktail

Idra Novey's taut second novel takes on an ever-relevant subject: Those Who Knew is a fast-paced, hackles-raising story that focuses on silenced victims of assault and the remorse and shame that comes of not speaking up against abuses of power. Like her first novel, it is set in a restless, nameless country south of the border, and plunges into a tightly engineered plot that zips along in short, varied chapters. But where Ways to Disappear was a playful, noirish literary mystery about language, Novey's latest is darker, more political, and more ambitious.

Those Who Knew has the structure and concision of a three-act drama — and in fact, with its underlying theatrical motifs, might play even better on the stage (or screen) than the page. Its opening act, set in "the aging port city of an island nation near the start of the new millennium," begins "Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident." The novel's main character, Lena, a professor and a former acolyte and girlfriend of a popular young liberal senator named Victor, has reason to believe this latest protégée's death was not an accident. Why? Within a few pages we learn that in a fit of rage ten years earlier, when they were both college activists tossing Molotov cocktails, Victor choked Lena until she blacked out.

Since then, Lena's fury has spun up into a "tornado." She vents about Maria P.'s death to her disillusioned friend Olga, who cautions her about the dangers of invoking "the wrath of a sociopath." Olga knows about both the wrath of sociopaths and the guilt of standing by: She survived detention for her Communist sympathies 40 years earlier during the Terrible Years of a ruthless American-backed regime, but still can't forgive herself for having failed to save the brutally murdered love of her life. She reminds Lena that although Victor may well be monstrous, he's widely adored for his advocacy of free tuition and bringing the regime's collaborators to justice; worse, he would surely discredit Lena's claims and go after her wealthy family.

So that's the setup, an explosive moral Molotov cocktail. Novey spikes her mix with trenchant scenes from a subversive family drama-in-progress written by Victor's gay brother, Freddy, a playwright who can't bring himself to publicly defame his sibling — which means these one-acters will never see the light of day. Victor's disdainful, politically expedient marriage adds another ingredient, as does the sweet, "blond-as-butter baker" and backpacking tourist with whom Lena briefly connects. "To kiss a man who understood none of the connotations of her country had been like a vacation from herself," Novey writes of this short-lived holiday from gravitas.

The carefully plotted novel jumps ahead four years in the second act to "the most dominant city of the most dominant country," and then wraps up two years later in 2007 "in a rapidly developing valley in the interior of the island." Novey flips between her characters with close third person point-of-view snapshots, occasionally bringing them together for some pre-curtain drama when they meet at Freddy's theatrical openings.

Although Novey's second novel isn't as winning as her first, there's certainly plenty to admire in it.

As in Ways to Disappear, Novey keeps things lively with flashes of wry wit and a mix of media, including news bulletins, quirky sales log entries from Olga's used book store, and the clever running commentary offered by Freddy's clandestine work-in-progress. But the novel's tight pacing can feel rushed, a form of narrative restlessness that leads to over-simplifications and characters reduced to a single trait, like Lena's "haughty enunciation," which repeatedly exposes the privileged background she's tried so hard to escape. Her tourist boyfriend is reduced even further — to his blond hair and pale freckled skin. Olga — the traumatized survivor who tries to salve her pain with marijuana and letters to her long-deceased beloved — demands compassion, but her story turns on a couple of somewhat cheap surprise revelations.

More off-putting, there's nothing subtle about Novey's depiction of Victor, whose every word and action are flat out despicable, despite his purported advocacy for good causes. This pol, the ultimate male chauvinist pig who all too aptly gets caught up in a "Fecal Fiasco" involving swine manure, will of course resonate with readers who still feel as outraged by the 2016 election results as Lena does every time she sees a picture of Victor in the news.

Although Novey's second novel isn't as winning as her first, there's certainly plenty to admire in it — beginning with its boldness in tackling big, important issues like silenced victimhood, moral compromise, complicity, and self-recrimination in an engaging, deeply humane work of fiction. One thing she certainly has right: There's no time like the present to explore how egregious affronts to common decency don't just evaporate without effective redress.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.