As college students, Lena and Victor marched in the streets and threw Molotov cocktails in the uprisings that led to the fall of the Cato dictatorship. They've had consensual "adrenaline-fueled 20-year-old sex." But when Lena misplaces a flyer about their group's next meeting—making them an easy target for the secret police—Victor loses control.
"When he pushed her against the wall and grabbed her throat," Lena "thought he was just panicking for a second. But then he'd smashed his palm over her nostrils.... Each time she'd managed to gasp for air, she'd apologized again, but Victor had just clamped his hand down, harder."
That's the backstory to Idra Novey's Those Who Knew, which opens about 10 years after the strangling incident. Lena now teaches at a "marginal" college. Victor has ascended to a seat in the Senate. A pretty young organizer on his campaign, Maria P., has just died in a suspicious bus accident—and may be sending Lena messages from beyond the grave.
Those Who Knew has been called "the definitive #MeToo novel" by Entertainment Weekly, and other variations on that epithet by other reviewers. Its central characters and obstacles are those of a #MeToo story. Like her real-life counterparts, Lena must weigh the costs of speaking out and of silence. She struggles against her powerful abuser's ability to stifle truth, and against the cultural myths that shield him from culpability.
The events of the novel unfold mostly in an unnamed island country in the early 21st century. Now a fledgling democracy—thanks in part to Lena and Victor's efforts—it's still reckoning with the legacy of the brutal Cato regime, which had been propped up by a large, powerful country to the north. The novel examines power imbalances between countries, men and women, the wealthy and the poor, and how those structures beget violence and silent complicity. It's also a chronicle of the small, daring acts of resistance capable of disturbing those structures.
After she begins receiving Maria P.'s messages, Lena feels compelled to expose Victor. But she grapples with the familiar possibility that she'll be dismissed as a bitter ex, a concern complicated and compounded by the risk that, from his perch in the Senate, Victor will go after her wealthy family. "Your family didn't kill anyone" in the years Cato held power, Lena's mother reminds her. They simply dismissed reports of the murders, and required employees in their factory to swear loyalty to the dictator who permitted their family to flourish. The public had come after a succession of powerful families at increasing distance from the former regime. "Victor," Lena thinks, "could easily make hers the next."
Victor blames his acts of violence on the women who "provoke" him. If Lena "hadn't made such an idiotic mistake, he never would have ended up with his hands around her neck," he tells himself. He gets off on exercising power over women, masturbating to the thought of his press secretary, Sara, "handling his calls, of his hand moving over her breasts under her shirt." Though he considers himself a "street dog," he fears challenges to his dominance and to the patriarchal culture he's so invested in. Anything can set him off: homosexuality, foreign chocolate bars, even the sight of his son shivering. "You don't want to grow up into a pampered little poodle, do you?" he demands, shoving the boy into a glass door in disgust.
But in other ways, Those Who Knew doesn't slot neatly into the framework of a #MeToo story. It was written before the hashtag exploded over social media, and Novey says that the first sparks of the novel came from the kinds of cases that tend to stay quiet—the ones, like the Steubenville rape case, that don't involve powerful men.
Novey, a translator from Spanish and Portuguese, spent several years living in South America. (She is also the author of several collections of poetry and the novel Ways to Disappear.) During her time in Chile, she worked in a domestic violence shelter, and followed news of the murders of several young women in a Chilean mining town, which local police had done "almost nothing" about. "I became obsessed with the case and realized how driven I was to write about acts of violence that don't make the news, and why they don't," she told LitHub.
Those Who Knew is also odder, and has broader horizons, than what we think of as a typical #MeToo story. A piece of "slippery realism," in Novey's words, the novel is shot through with ghosts and doubles. "Impossibly, gloriously, walking into this invincible sandwich shop was her beloved again," Olga thinks when she meets Sara, the niece of her beloved, S, who was murdered by regime soldiers. Sara and S share a name, plus "thick, untamable curls" and the same determination to achieve justice. Like Maria P., Sara is the silenced past that haunts the present.
Novey explores power dynamics on the level of nation and generation, as well as between the sexes. The book moves between the unnamed island nation and "the most dominant city of the most dominant country." That doesn't necessarily mean New York: Novey reminds us that the balance of global power can shift, and has done so in the past. The island nation isn't necessarily one of the South American countries where Novey has spent time. The novel's story could have happened anywhere we see patriarchy, silence, and violence colluding—that is, most anywhere on Earth.
Just as Victor is insulated from knowing the full harm he's inflicted, citizens of the "dominant nation," which supplied the Cato regime with arms and other equipment, are allowed a privileged ignorance. Lena is only too aware of the details of the involvement of the "dominant nation"—she can picture "the trucks that "round[ed] up Olga and thousands of others. To shoot them in the street." But Oscar, the pale, freckled northerner she sleeps with, has a shorter political memory. Shy and good-natured, he confesses that he "always wanted to remember the dates and names, but they just didn't stick."
Novey is a keen observer of power's effects on those who hold it. Victor earned his reputation as a college radical; as he ages, he grows softer in the middle and in his morals. Speaking at a rally after a big lunch, he has to force "the passion in his voice as if it were a horse beneath him and if he just kicked at it hard enough he could get it to gallop." His party—the Truth and Justice Party—has scarcely managed to improve literacy or poverty rates since the fall of the Cato regime. Instead, he earns the love of young voters with a free college plan that he ripped off from Maria P.
Over the past year, we've seen many essays asking what we ought to do with "monstrous men" whose art, or politics, or jokes we like. Given Victor's support for democracy, accountability, and free college, a reader might be tempted to ask that question about him. But Novey demonstrates the delusion implicit in that framing of the issue.
Victor can't have good politics because of his investment in being part of a network of male power—that is, a patriarchy. His spiral into that corrupt network begins with his marriage to Cristina, a "plastic decoy of a woman" whom he uses as a distraction from rumors of his involvement in Maria P.'s death, and as a connection to her elder statesman father.
Almost immediately, Victor and his father-in-law begin to swap favors. At his father-in-law's request, Victor smooths through a farmer's permit for more pigs. More pigs means more pig shit, but Victor convinces his cousin in the Agricultural Department, who's charged with oversight of such things, to overlook the company's toxic impacts by setting the cousin up with a cushy, and technically illegal, consultancy on the farm. More pig shit eventually becomes an enormous toxic lake of the stuff, which harms every segment of the community nearby: Grandmas faint, teenagers are hospitalized, and children begin to "root around in the mud."
Those Who Knew offers something few #MeToo stories can: a glimpse of justice. After his role in the pig-shit disaster is uncovered, Victor experiences a spectacular, and spectacularly satisfying, fall from grace. He loses his wife, his position, and his reputation in short order. After a video of him drunkenly attacking a dock worker surfaces, it's clear there will be no comeback for Victor—which is more than we can say for a lot of these assholes in real life.
Another vision of justice comes in Olga's decision to run for municipal council in the sleepy interior of the island, where she and Lena have settled by the end of the novel. She would be the second woman on the council, and the only one, it seems, interested in challenging the status quo of educational and environmental inequality in the valley.
Before the novel was published, Novey had "started to fantasize about the kind of candidate that I wanted to see on a ballot with Olga," she told The Cut. "It was astonishing and beautiful to see women all over America not just fantasizing about it—they put their names down on the ballot." Fittingly, Those Who Knew was published on November 6th, when a record number of female candidates were elected into positions of power—where they'll have the opportunity to tell a different kind of story.