Title: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Author: Elizabeth L. Silver
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Published: 11 June 2013
Genre: crime, mystery, drama
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why. Even my lawyers knew I did it from the moment I liquidated my metallic savings bank hoarded in the bloated gut of a pink pig to pay their bills. I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.
When Noa P. Singleton was put on trial for killing Sarah Dixon, she never took the stand in her own defence, and the state’s weak, melodramatic case was enough to give her the death penalty. Now, after a decade in jail and her execution date six months away, Noa is suddenly approached by Sarah’s mother Marlene. At the trial, Marlene stated that Noa was exactly the kind of person the death penalty was designed for. Now, she offers to use her considerable influence as a high-powered attorney to get Noa granted clemency – life in prison instead of death.
In exchange, Marlene wants Noa to prove that she’s reformed, specifically by revealing the all the details that she never confessed during the trial – her motives and the specifics of what happened that day. Whether or not Noa deserves to be on death row, they both know that she was put there for the wrong reasons. Marlene sends her lawyer Oliver to speak to Noa, who begins telling her story, from the very beginning when her mother dropped her as a baby.
Which is kind of funny in the black way that Noa sometimes laughs at things if only to avoid crying about the way her life has turned out. This is a mystery novel, but it’d be more accurate to think of it as a tragic life story that led to a murder and a death sentence. At ten-months old (I’m rather sceptical about the idea that Noa has memories from such an early age, but whatever) Noa’s mother accidentally dropped her from the top of a second-floor stairway. Too embarrassed to admit what happened, she made up a ridiculous story about an intruder and proceeded to wreck Noa’s crib and the house as evidence for her lie.
In true Freudian style, Noa repeatedly looks to her past to explain or contextualise the later events of her life. This incident is mentioned several times, particularly because of her mother’s bizarre attempt to cover up the truth, as Noa has done. Being dropped as a baby is also the first in a long line of mishaps and tragedies that characterise Noa’s life. She was raised by a single mother who frequently changed boyfriends. She suffered a disastrous miscarriage, requiring an emergency abortion that left her unable to have children. She dropped out of college soon after and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her life. Later, Noa’s estranged father gets in touch with her and tries to build a relationship with her. He’s an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who is very obviously a relapse waiting to happen.
Although this sounds more like a drama than a crime novel, most of Noa’s story, down to the sad little details, eventually ties in to the murder, the trial and her sentence. A lot of it ends up being misused in the trial, which seems more like a soap opera than a serious legal procedure.
It turns out that Noa is actually the one writing the story we’re reading, doing her best to explain how she ended up on death row, why she never defended herself, why she committed murder in the first place. She sometimes suggests that she’s an unreliable narrator – revealing that a story she just told is a lie, or leaving out important events and details – but you get the impression that if she has misled you, she will eventually tell the whole truth. In between her biographical chapters, she also describes her conversations with Marlene’s lawyer Oliver (a sweet twenty-something who, unlike Marlene, is very serious about helping Noa), details about the death penalty in America, comments on how the trial was conducted (like the way the jury was frequently asked to ignore statements from witnesses, or how she was demonised as a bitter, barren psychopath), life on death row and so on.
Partly because Noa is the author here, your sympathy falls with her, the confessed, convicted murderer. She manages to be the heroine rather than the villain, even if you don’t quite like her (she’s certainly not cute and fluffy). If there is a villain of any kind, it’s Marlene, the mother of the murder victim. Noa says she “had never known Marlene to possess even a quarter of a heart, let alone a full one”, and even when accounting for the fact that Marlene is shown from Noa’s perspective, she really does seem to be a stone cold bitch. Her motives for wanting to get Noa granted clemency are purely selfish – she wants a means of getting the truth, and she wants Noa to spend the rest of her life wasting away in jail rather than being given an early escape. Which is a perfectly understandable attitude toward the woman who shot your daughter, until you realise that this is simply an example of Marlene’s cruel selfishness. The narrative actually includes some letters she writes to her dead daughter, but these don’t elicit sympathy so much as reveal Marlene to be the unstable, controlling woman that Noa warned us about.
I want to make a few comments on the writing and narrative style. The novel is easy to read, but Silver often makes attempts at being poetic that tend to be confused or just fall flat. Oliver actually criticises Noa’s metaphors at one point: “Lovely, Noa,” he said, spitting a bit of scoff my way. “Taking a poetry class via the post?” Based on that you could say that this style is a voice Silver crafted for Noa, but sometimes Marlene does it too.
Another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple of chapters are little more than lists. Between telling her life story, Noa gives us trivia related to her experience at the trial an in prison – excuses people make to avoid jury duty, final words of people who’d been executed, final meals. Some of this is interesting for a short while, but it quickly gets tedious without adding anything to the story. It’s also unclear where Noa gets this information, since she’s stuck in prison with few connections to the outside world.
But flaws aside, this is a pretty good read and an impressive debut novel. I loved the way the main characters’ psychology unfolded as the novel progressed, with all their twisted issues about family, guilt and atonement. It moves relatively slowly for quite a while, but by the last quarter or so I was anxious about how it would turn out. If I’d read it in print instead of on a Kindle I’d have had to stop myself from ‘accidentally’ glancing at the final pages. And any mystery that has that effect on me has done its job.