How to Tell an Open Secret

Three recent novels demonstrate how fiction can deftly capture the long-term effects of sexual assault and harassment.

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They were young, still in college, when one night he lashed out and choked her—backed her against the wall, his hands on her neck, so she thought she was going to die. She crept home and hardly spoke of it, told one trusted friend years later, while he rose in the ranks of the country’s powerful, a political wunderkind. Then she learned of his young female protégée’s death, thought of what he might have done to her. She was bent on coming forward. She thought it was her duty.

This is the basic premise of Idra Novey’s novel, Those Who Knew. The echoes of high-profile, real-life stories are obvious. The parallels would be uncanny if the narratives were more unusual; after a year’s steady drumbeat of disturbing allegations, though, these details feel all too familiar.

Amid this climate, three novels—Those Who Knew; Kate Walbert’s His Favorites; and Anna Burns’s Milkman—vividly portray the long tail of sexual violence and harassment. The stories are at once immersive and fragmented, with details that, by turns, are hazy and indelible. In tracing the origins of open secrets to their flawed, incomplete resolutions, they show how fiction can illuminate the lingering effects of sexual misconduct.

His Favorites centers on Jo, a 15-year-old girl who is sent to a prestigious boarding school after she is involved in a DUI incident that kills her best friend. Depressed, mostly friendless, and bookishly talented, Jo loses herself in solitary walks and heavy Russian novels. In this way she catches the attention of Master Aikens, a charismatic English professor who teaches a coveted seminar. He’s handsome, known to be “cool,” and rumor has it, “like[s] a nice view in his classroom, above and below the neck.”


What follows unfolds with wrenching inevitability: Master’s flattery and violations, Jo’s tentative thrill, terror, and heartbreak. The novel is narrated, it turns out, by a much older Jo, whose cultural reference points have shifted from peasant blouses and Elton John to Google Earth and robocalls. This framing allows for a timeline that’s sometimes collapsed; Jo begins her story with a prediction about how her telling will be received, and often introduces events by pointing to their consequences.

Jo, acutely aware of potential challenges to her account, is preoccupied with grammar, and with the fact that “there are many perspectives to any story, as I have been reminded.” She experiments with the dissociative effects of the third-person omniscient, and briefly dips into her own rapist’s head to defend his actions in free indirect discourse. She interrupts herself to bemoan, as Master would, the weakness of conditional verbs: “Would haves, should haves, could haves: nothing claimed, nothing asserted.” Jo is something more than an unreliable narrator—she’s a narrator who has internalized the idea that she cannot be trusted.

Her own first-person telling is grammatically unstable. Things happen sometimes in the past tense, and sometimes in the present, and sometimes in a verbless cascade of contextualizing details: “The campus magically beautiful that night … the chapel steeple and Victorians all tiny, diminished … Everything dangerous. Everything new.” This syntactical tic gives the sense of an interconnected environment that’s wholly outside the narrator’s control. The effect is to reproduce, on a sentence level, what the book’s overall structure conveys: that trauma weaves itself through every aspect of a person’s life, including her future.

Milkman, the recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, is similarly structured: The first line launches an ending, “the day … the milkman died,” and the rest of the story unspools to follow it in a stream of consciousness. The narrator, known only as “middle sister,” is 18 when the novel’s events take place; like Jo of His Favorites, however, she tells her story as a woman decades older, occasionally jumping forward to a key plot point and backtracking to explain the events that led there.

The effect can be disorienting, but then, so is the historical moment the novel seeks to capture. Milkman is set in a small northern Irish community during the long period of political violence from 1968 to 1988 known as the Troubles. Burns illustrates the period’s intense distrust, uncertainty, and paranoia, in part by omitting the names of most people and things. Characters might belong to “our religion” or to “the wrong religion,” to “our side” or “their side”; they abide by a complex and unspoken system of restrictions in which “every resident was supposed to know what was permitted based on what was not permitted.”


This unique approach to knowledge and privateness allows Burns to turn the concept of an open secret on its head. Whereas in Walbert’s novel, students and faculty know of Master’s predatory behavior yet pretend it isn’t happening, middle sister’s neighbors see that the milkman is stalking her and decide collectively that they are having an affair, which becomes the talk of the town. Middle sister is frightened by the stalking and bewildered by the rumor, but doesn’t know of any way she can possibly respond. “I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain,” she says to her mother, who doesn’t believe her. “So I’d kept silent … That way … I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate … to ground and protect myself.”

Is any healing possible for such persistent injuries? In Those Who Knew, Novey hints at a possible resolution; crucially, though, the scope of her story is national rather than personal. Set on an unnamed island country, Those Who Knew begins a decade after a revolution replaced a brutal dictatorship with a corrupt democracy, shortly before an important senatorial election, and “precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident.”

That piece of context—the very first line of the novel—sets the stage for a narrative in which a certain level of defeat is a forgone conclusion. Maria P. is a young campaign staffer who gets hit by a bus not long after becoming involved with Victor, a rising-star senator. When Lena, the protagonist, hears of her death, she becomes convinced that Victor is responsible; after all, she too dated Victor until he assaulted her, back in their student activist days. Victor is too powerful to accuse publicly, though: “You just have a hunch,” Lena’s friend reminds her, “and he has the backing of the entire Truth and Justice Party.” The answer, they eventually decide, is to end his career by exposing his corruption. His record of personal violence will remain a secret among those who know of it firsthand.


A perplexing death, a powerful villain, a secret mission to stop him: The novel has all the plot points of a mystery thriller. It’s structured like a case file, with documents—the sales log of a bookstore, manuscripts for a play—inserted as stand-alone chapters among the rotating viewpoints of several key players, including Lena; her close friend Olga; Victor’s wife, Cristina; and Victor himself. Compared with Walbert’s and Burns’s first-person narrators, Novey’s third-person prose is by design less emotional, sticking closely and clearly to the events of the present rather than following the digressions that the other authors use to signal trauma.

Still, Those Who Knew shows how an attack from an intimate partner can make reality feel shaky. Lena, in particular, is haunted by surreal events she thinks could be messages from Maria P.’s ghost. Quotation marks are omitted, leaving no clear separation between characters’ internal realities and what they say out loud. And while the multiple perspectives allow for a big-picture view of resolution, the plot drifts past what might otherwise be a climactic finale to land on an open-ended note, as characters look to the future of their country. The group of “those who knew” about Victor’s violence against women never gets bigger.

Like those of His Favorites and Milkman, this ending resists closure. It calls into question not only what can be known for sure about an experience of sexual violence, but also the value of knowledge itself. What good is a story if no one believes it? What do facts matter, in practical terms, if people refuse to see them? What use is a damning secret if it’s never to be let out?

All three authors—Novey, Burns, and Walbert—are deeply conscious of the ways in which victims of sexual assault are disbelieved and learn to doubt themselves. They pack their biggest punches in form, communicating the experiences of self-doubt and isolation within a secret just as strongly as they do the contents of the secrets themselves. In each of these novels, the outcome of the story is moot. The message is in the telling.