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A Timely Dystopian Thriller With Sexual Assault and Political Corruption at Its Core

Category: Art & Culture,Books

By Idra Novey
248 pp. Viking. $26.

Idra Novey’s timing is impeccable, though she probably wishes it weren’t — for the sake of the Union. Her second novel, “Those Who Knew,” features a popular politician who has a history of assaulting women, including one attack in which he clamps his hand down over the face of our protagonist, Lena, nearly suffocating her until she passes out.

The book is a thriller of sorts, as Lena flashes back to that moment, haunted by the death of another young woman she’s sure the politician, a sociopathic senator named Victor, has murdered. He could kill again — thanks to Lena’s silence and the silence of others, including Victor’s homosexual playwright brother, Freddy. Freddy writes an experimental drama exposing Victor, which is interspersed in bits and pieces between the short chapters of the novel, but he locks it in a desk drawer. This is not so much a Whodunit as a When Will They Speak Up?

“Those Who Knew” opens on an unnamed island 10 years after the fall of a murderous American-backed regime, and Victor has emerged as a young liberal savior, a leader from the Truth and Justice Party. But Victor is just as bad as, or worse than, his predecessors. Lena, a rebel whose family members were supporters of the old regime, thinks that if she blew the whistle on the beloved senator, no one would believe her. In addition to his assaults on women he claims to love, Victor is involved in a farm scandal, which leaves a lake of swine feces stinking up the countryside. It’s only a matter of time before someone smells the rot.

Novey’s first book, the critically acclaimed “Ways to Disappear,” took place in Brazil and tackled similarly unpleasant subject matter — a kidnapping, a severed ear, a writer disappearing up a tree, a strained mother-daughter relationship and a hotel going up in flames. It had bite-size chapters as well, interspersed with faux dictionary definitions rather than the intermittent play scenes and diary entries here. But somehow there was a sense of magic to that last book, an optimism among the dark alleys and dysfunctional family relationships. It was like the caipirinhas that its Brazilian characters kept mixing — sweet but also sour, and packing a punch.

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