An unforgettable and unpredictable debut novel of guilt, punishment, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive
Noa P. Singleton never spoke a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ended with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, having accepted her fate, she sits on death row in a maximum-security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.
Meanwhile, Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She claims to have changed her mind about the death penalty and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute Noa's sentence to life in prison, in return for the one thing Noa can trade: her story. Marlene desperately wants to understand the events that led to her daughter’s death—events that only Noa knows of and has never shared. Inextricably linked by murder but with very different goals, Noa and Marlene wrestle with the sentences life itself can impose while they confront the best and worst of what makes us human.
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At the start of attorney Silver's searing debut, Noa Singleton, a convicted murderer on Pennsylvania's death row scheduled to be executed in six months, receives an offer of help from the most unlikely of sources her pregnant victim's mother, Marlene Dixon. A high-powered Philadelphia lawyer, Marlene has changed her views on the death penalty and will champion a petition to commute Noa's sentence to life in prison if Noa reveals what drove her to kill her one-time University of Pennsylvania classmate. But is this a good-faith offer, or just an attempt by a grief-stricken and guilt-ridden mother to exact some final revenge? The appealing but morally anorexic Noa is left to wonder as she proffers tantalizing peeks of her past (or are they self-serving fictions?), from memories of her narcissistic, manipulative mother to the ex-con father she would have been better off never meeting. This devastating read stands less as a polemic against the death penalty than as a heartbreaking brief for the preciousness of life.
the stories we tell
In her debut novel The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Elizabeth L. Silver introduces the reader to the title character six months before her scheduled execution date. For the next 300 or so pages, Silver presents a woman resolved, past care, distant, thoughtful, and damaged with a plot that twists and doubles back, revealing lies and truths, and the things that shape Noa for good or ill.
On that day, six months before what Noa P. Singleton terms ‘X-Day,’ in walks high powered female lawyer, Marlene Dixon, along with Oliver, another lawyer in her firm, to build a clemency case. What makes Marlene different from the other parade of lawyers Noa will talk about through the novel is that she is the mother of Sarah, the woman Noa has been convicted of killing.
The opening chapters leave the reader with questions as to intent and while those questions are resolved by the end, it doesn’t do so with pretty bows. The prologue, in the opening paragraph, sets up one of the themes of the novel.
In this world, you are either good or evil. If not, then a court or a teacher or a parent is bound to rage your identity before you’ve had a chance to figure it out on your own. The gray middle ground, the mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides, is really only a temporary annex, like gestation or purgatory…. It waits for you, patiently, until the day it wraps you in its cyclone and you can no longer vacillate between black and white, artist or scientist, teacher or student. It is this point at which you much choose one way of life or the other. Victor or victim.
The turns of plot, the reveals of information, and the gradual details of character painted as the story moves along reinforce the idea of that vacillation between extremes only to land squarely in the gray.
As a former literature teacher, I always wanted my students to think about narration - especially first person narration, and readers should here. The Unreliable Narrator (Yes, Mr Poe I talking to you…) comes into play here, not once but twice. Sprinkled in through the narration of Noa are letters from Marlene to her dead daughter. Marlene has her own agenda — ostensibly to learn what Noa has revealed to no one: what actually happened on the day Sarah died. But the letters to her dead daughter bring that, too, into question.
The novel is about how one women, not a stereotypical murderer, comes to be on death row and how she faces her execution and her past, as well as being a story of mothers and fathers, the things people do for love, for self-preservation, to survive, and to expunge guilt. The characters are well drawn and, fortunately, unlike many first person POV novels, the voice of Noa is distinctive. Maybe not Holden Caulfield or Ishmael, but distinct all the same.
Some readers have complained about Silver’s use of metaphors and simile but, while I found them hit or miss, they seemed more about the character of Noa than about SIlver’s prose. Beyond that, the narrative moved quickly, covering the whole of Noa’s life and doling out just enough to keep an astute reading reevaluating and putting the puzzle together.
Certainly, without standing on a soapbox, Silver does make the audience think about the death penalty. As a lawyer, Silver paints a good picture of the justice system, particularly about the various clichés of death row defense and appeals. The description of Noa’s life behind bars is well done — the Three Musketeer’s bar incident and descriptions of Patsmith’s nightly ritual are good examples of that. But by no stretch is the novel about death row or the moral implications of the death penalty — not a variation on “Dead Man Walking” or “Life of David Gayle” — but it is enough to make a reader think about ‘big’ ideas like guilt and innocence, class and privilege, and ‘the system’.
The narration and questions about the veracity of both the stories of Marlene and Noa brings in another level where I found that I questioned what came before, that made me see Noa in different light. There is a reveal of information where for me, there was transition between victim and victor or victor and victim, depending on how you want to see things. Ultimately, the book is about memory and perception, about lies we tell others and ourselves, of how we interpret stories we hear, and how we alter stories we retell.
Oh, I was so into this book, and couldn't put it down, BUT it left me with a longing for tidying up all the loose ends....I was so disappointed with the end. So many ways to go, and this wasn't one of them. I understood Noa's desire to finally pay for her original "sin" if you will, but the fact that we don't have closure with the father was unnerving. Same with the fact that I wish Noa could have send the manuscript to a reporter and ultimately, the mother's part in the killing would have been exposed. Too bad, really. If someone asks me now what I think, I will probably say; "great book, disappointing ending." Leave it at that.
Excellent Novel...not a dull moment...
Wow! A unique crime novel and great book discussion " death penalty ". It truly has read like a real life crime that you just have to know and draws you on a roller coaster ride that and didn't stop since the first word read. I polished it off in a day and 1/4.
Honestly, I would give it 4 1/2 stars due to my satisfaction of events coalescing into a cohesive, neat novel of a package. Yet crime and justice is never in a neat process. Further, the author seemed to bring a lot of thought cats cradle a great deal of wry witty humour to the character, Noa P. Singleton. I truly enjoyed this and it was just what I needed for a read.
However, even though my ilk of reading is literary, this novel will grab you until the last page causing any die hard bedtime to be abdicated until completion.