8.17.2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of
Noa P. Singleton
When I started Elizabeth Silver's The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, I was surprised by the tone. It was brisk, sharp, and a bit callous. It's not the elegiac anti-death penalty appeal masquerading as a novel that I was kind of expecting. (That's not what I was looking for, by the way. I was looking for an exploration of a character who may or may not deserve to be on death row.) What I found was a fascinating examination of retribution and atonement.

The novel opens six months before "X-day," Noa's execution day. Noa has been on death row for about 10 years, convicted of the murder of Sarah Dixon and Sarah's unborn child. Noa admits that she shot Sarah and faked an intruder break in, but she consistently refuses to say way. More than that, Noa refuses to defend herself. It's puzzling. Anyone would expect Noa to be fighting for any chance of a stay, commutation, or being found not guilty. But she doesn't. Noa is strangely at peace. So when a new lawyer and the mother of her victim show up at the prison telling her that they're working on commuting her sentence to life in prison, they're baffled by her passivity.

Silver's novel contains an alternating trio of perspectives. First, there is Noa reflecting on her current state. She doesn't lament the fact that she's been sentenced to die. Instead, she meditates on the absurd rituals of death row, her fellow inmates, and the motivations of her visitors. Then, Silver shows us Noa's life, from her mother covering up an accident involving Noa's fall down the stairs at 10 months old, to Noa's strangely aborted life, her trial and, finally, to what happened on New Year's Day when Sarah died.

It's masterful the way Silver hides then reveals the missing, crucial pieces of Noa's life. The novel may baffle you at the beginning as much as it baffles Noa's visitors, but Silver eventually reveals why Noa is so at peace with her immanent death. As Silver and Noa tell the story, I pondered the death penalty, but this isn't a book that will change anyone's mind no matter which stance they take. And I'm glad of that. I've read too many books in the past where the message overrides the story. Any rhetorician will tell you that it's far more effective to let the message serve the story anyway.

Like Noa, as I read this book, I was struck by the theatricality of the entire process. In the quest for justice, I think we let emotion carry us away. Noa thinks back to her jury's selection in one of the most profound passages in the book. She recalls the answers the possible jurors gave about whether they would consider the death penalty and what they see their role as. Some vehemently declare that they believe in the death penalty in the same language the pious use to affirm their religion's tenets. Others argue against "an eye for an eye," again using religious language. I'd never noticed that before. Noa also writes about how the jurors judge her for her appearance and attitude as much as they consider the evidence and the prosecutor's portrayal of events. After reading this book, I really hope I never have to be in the same position as Noa's jurors. By the end, it seemed like the jury served the same role as a firing squad. There's only one live bullet, but responsibility and blame and guilt for the execution are shared.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an incredible book. Noa is masterfully and realistically written. She's prickly and hard to know. But she's also captivating. She pulls you into her story even though you suspect that she doesn't care what you think. Noa has already judged herself.

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