Published by Broadway Books ISBN 9780385347457
Trade paperback, $14, 336 pages
Noa P. Singleton has resided on death row in Pennsylvania for ten years and is within six months of being executed for the crime of murdering a young pregnant woman in Elizabeth L. Silver's thought-provoking debut novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.
Marlene, the mother of Noa's victim Sarah, argued persuasively and successfully for the death penalty, but now ten years later, she has changed her mind. She now believes that no one has the right to take a life, and that includes the state in retribution for murder.
Noa is rightfully suspect of this change of heart, and as the story unwinds in Noa's voice and letters Marlene has written to her dead daughter, we can see why. It is difficult to review this intriguing story without giving too much away, but here goes.
Noa is what is known as an unreliable narrator; we cannot trust that what she has said is the truth. This novel tries to untangle Noa's story, beginning with life with a sometimes-actress mother who lived with a lot of men as Noa grew up. Did any of them molest Noa, and if so, did that effect her later behavior?
Her father left Noa and her mother, and she had no contact with him until she went to college and found that he owned a bar in the city where she went to school. Noa left college after an incident in the college library that left her physically and emotionally scarred.
She is reluctant to become involved with her father, an ex-con with a lot of problems. He wants to become a part of Noa's life, but she is leery of him. Still, she spends more and more time with him. One day Noa runs into the bar and tells her father a man was following her. Her father chases after the man and catches him.
That sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Noa being convicted of Sarah's murder. The trial scenes that Silver writes are fascinating, from the 12-hour police interview to the juror selection (after just having served jury duty, I found this part really interesting) to the actual trial, conviction and sentencing. Silver is a lawyer and worked on several death penalty cases and her expertise shines through here.
Silver writes Noa's incarceration scenes with empathy and integrity. The reader is dropped into a world not many of us know (thank goodness), and Noa's sense of isolation is palpable. Noa comes to believe that she belongs there, saying
"it's the internal acceptance that finally you have become the person you were meant to be. When you enter, true, you are given a new number, a new residence, and a new wardrobe; but is is only when you place those garments upon your limbs that realize they were meant for no one but you. No former splinters of your personality carry over into prison life. No relationships, fictional or otherwise, accompany them either. Any superficial intimacy you claim to have experienced with another (whether consanguineous or not) when you wore any color other than cocoa brown fades as quickly as a puff of smoke. You are now the person everyone knows you to be."
Reading this deeply affecting novel will have you questioning the use and human cost of capital punishment. Silver sprinkles in some jaw-dropping revelations, from secret relationships to incidents in the Noa's past that are stunning and also explain much of Noa's willingness to accept her fate. The suspense here is so well done.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton put me in mind of another novel I read with an unreliable female character- Marcy Dermanksy's Bad Marie. They have the same dark tone, and unforgettable protagonists.
If you like a story that will make you think and question human nature, this is the novel for you. I'm still thinking about it days after I have finished it. Silver's debut novel has me looking for more from her in the future.
rating 4 of 5
Elizabeth L. Silver's website is here.
My review of Bad Marie is here.