Now Lila Knows
- By Elizabeth Nunez
- Akashic Books
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Beth Mowbray
- July 8, 2023
A Caribbean professor grapples with American-style racism.
What would you do if you witnessed the horrific murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a white police officer? Would you tell the authorities what you saw — even though they perpetrated the crime? Would you be willing to risk your job, your relationships, and your sense of security to get justice for a stranger?
These are some of the questions at the heart of Elizabeth Nunez’s latest novel, Now Lila Knows. Dr. Lila Bonnard is an English professor who has traveled from her home in the Caribbean to teach in small-town Vermont for a year. As she arrives, she stumbles upon an unexpected scene. A Black man appears to be crouched down over a white woman and giving her CPR. When he ignores police commands to stop and move away from her, he is shot and killed.
Later, as Lila begins her term at Mayfield College, she learns the man was himself a professor there. And what she saw was, in fact, the truth: The woman he was helping was in the midst of a drug overdose, and he died trying to save her life. While the townspeople move on from the incident all too quickly, Lila is befriended by the few other Black professors and staff on campus, who encourage her to report what she witnessed and bring about justice for their friend. But things aren’t so simple and clear-cut in Lila’s mind.
This particular story may be fiction, but the circumstances are sickeningly familiar to Americans:
“It’s a blot on our country, the racism here. The police see a Black man, even a Black boy, and all they see is a Black body. They shoot first and ask questions later.”
As Lila struggles to process the murder, she hears a variety of excuses and rationalizations (inevitably involving victim-blaming) for what happened. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He should’ve known better. He should have listened to the police and done what he was told.
In recent years, the topic of police violence toward people of color has become more prevalent in literature, but Nunez offers a protagonist who brings a unique perspective to the subject. Being from the Caribbean, Lila is unfamiliar with what racism in America looks like. Over time, though, she begins to see it more clearly through her interactions with white residents in Mayfield and from the stories of her Black colleagues. She also relates her own experiences as someone whose family lineage is multiracial. “We may not have Black and white racism as they have in America,” Lila tells friends about her home country, “but we have colorism.’”
Beyond the core issue of racism, the novel also touches on the opioid epidemic and weaves in a bit of a love story. These elements don’t detract from the narrative, but they also don’t resonate as much as the book’s central theme. Bibliophiles will, however, enjoy the added bonus of Nunez spotlighting famous Black authors like James Baldwin and William Melvin Kelley and commenting on the impact of words:
“There was power in fiction, in the catharsis story made possible. Catharsis had opened [Lila’s] heart to feelings and feelings had led her to a desire to act.”
Where Nunez really soars is in stressing the significance of raising your voice, no matter who you are or how much you think it won’t help. She shouts at the top of her lungs that doing the right thing is critical even — especially — when it’s hard, because “once you know, there is no unknowing.” Action must extend from knowledge.
Now Lila Knows is smoothly written and easy to read, but don’t let that mislead you; its content is anything but simple to digest. The novel echoes real life and captures a critical moment in our history. While its approach is overly direct at times, the story is nonetheless important and powerful. Days after finishing, you may find it still tickling the back of your mind.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2022.]
Beth Mowbray is a freelance writer with a passion for entertainment and pop culture, especially books. She is also a clinical social worker with extensive experience working with children and families. Beth’s other great loves include her son and husband, live music, that first sip of morning coffee, and a bottle of wine shared among friends. You can also find Beth on Instagram, Goodreads, and as a contributor for the Nerd Daily.