Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver

I finished this book without the sated feeling I normally feel when I finish a well-told story.  I felt perplexed, sucker-punched, confused, and ultimately like I needed more.  A number of hours have passed and I am still befuddled by some of Noa's actions. And yet they felt then upon first reading and feel now upon further contemplation believable and real.  Her actions appear human.

Elizabeth Silver succeeded in creating something truly novel in this story. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton provides a window into an experience that is deeply foreign, an experience most individuals do not even care to contemplate. What is it like to be a woman on death row? And what events could lead an intelligent woman who is admitted to an Ivy League School to find herself on Death Row? Additionally, why would someone facing death row refuse to help the attorneys trying to defend her?  The story of Noa P. Singleton feels deeply real because humans are complex and baffling individuals.  People often say "truth is stranger than fiction." We live in a world where a troubled young man chose to enter an elementary school and kill 20 sixth graders and 6 adults and another troubled young man hunted down TSA agents. We live in a world where a high school student sexually assaulted his teacher and killed her in a school bathroom before dumping her desecrated body in woods behind the school. We live in a world where over 11,000 people have been killed by guns since Newtown.  Our reality is baffling.

Some will say Noa P. is a psychopath, but I didn't read her that way. She went to UPenn, she lived in Philly. I have lived both of those experiences. She was raised by a mother who told a story that loomed large  in her psyche. She didn't meet her father until she was eighteen years old. She suffered two devastating losses at early ages and was not provided with the necessary guidance to help her make peace with these deeply traumatic experiences.  I have thankfully not lived those experiences.

This novel is a story of death row and of murder, but it is also a story about dysfunctional parenting. It is a story of the events that bring together two dramatically different women--Noa, an intelligent college dropout and Marlene Dixon, a high-powered attorney and the mother of Noa's victim.  Silver helps the reader to see that Noa is not completely evil and Marlene is not completely a victim or person deserving of sympathy.  The theme of agency looms large in their intertwined story.  But the whole novel seems an artful take on delving deep into the ways the events of our childhood stay with us forever and lead us to particular fates. Noa had been fed a particular story by her mother for countless years. Her mother didn't want to own up to dropping her baby, so she manufactured a story of a home invasion. Noa internalized the moral of this story; she chooses at thirteen to cover up her own worst act.  And twelve years later when faced with another dangerous situation, she chooses again to embrace creative truth telling.  After this event she refuses to provide any explanations or stories.  She spins no new yarns until right before the end, when Marlene arrives with an assistant, proclaiming she is now against the death penalty and wants to help Noa.  In the end, Noa's explanation is buried and forgiveness and clemency are thrown aside as unworthy goals.  But the reader is left pondering: What is the point of all these machinations and missteps?  What can be learned from these choices?

I'm still perplexed even as I sit here trying to make sense of this artfully drawn story.  Why did the author make these particular choices?  How do we understand the emotions and choices that drive all of the flawed characters in this story?  I think The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an excellent choice for a book club.  There is so much in this compelling story worthy of probing and it would be helpful to make sense of this novel with others.

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