Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

A friend of mine from college horrified all of us at one of our reunions with her tale of sitting on a jury in a capital murder case. She mercilessly skewered clueless fellow jurors, the defendant with his earnest but undeniable lies, the entire process really, finishing with the comment that her experience with our legal system has left her very jaded and disappointed. I want to forewarn her to never read Elizabeth Silver's debut novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, a story of the unreliability, corruptibility, and bumbling incompetence in the US legal system. It will further erode her confidence in people finding justice through our court system, not because Noa P. Singleton didn't shoot Sarah Dixon, the crime for which she is incarcerated (she did), but because there's so much more to the story than just this simple, unequivocal verdict and it's the "more" that changes everything as my friend found when sitting as a juror.

Noa P. Singleton is a broken woman. Ten years ago she was convicted of murdering Sarah Dixon and sentenced to death. She sat through the trial without saying a word in her defense and in her decade on Death Row, through countless appeals, and under the representation of young (incompetent) lawyer after lawyer looking to make their own reputations through her notoriety, she has never told her side of the story. Six months before her execution date, another young lawyer comes to see her at the behest of Marlene Dixon, the mother of the young woman Noa shot. Oliver tells her that Marlene has changed her opinion on the death penalty, has created an organization--MAD or Mothers Against Death--to further her new aims, and wants Noa to be granted clemency. Despite the fact that Marlene is herself a very high powered, ruthless attorney, she has Oliver Stansted, a junior lawyer at her firm, doing the pro bono work and meeting with Noa. All that Marlene asks of Noa in return for her legal intervention is that Noa finally explain why she shot Sarah. Noa contends that Marlene already knows without acknowledging that she knows and she must decide if Marlene deserves the comfort or exoneration of hearing anything further from Noa. And yet she starts writing down her version of her life and the events that are marching her inexorably towards November 7, the date she is scheduled to die.

Narrated primarily by Noa with short supplemental letters from Marlene written to Sarah which change the reader's view of Marlene's motivations and a few other semi-problematic point of view shifts, this is a slow, contemplative and philosophical novel. Noa tells of the neglect in her childhood and the tragedies in her young life that formed the woman she grew into. And her background should be one that inspires some sympathy but she narrates all of it with a rather flat affect leaving the reader strangely unmoved as well. Woven in with Noa's life story are her thoughts on the prison system and the ponderings of an inmate on Death Row. There are long lists comparing others' last meals and last words as she wonders what hers will be and why. And there are many reflections on Noa's arrest and trial. The portions of the novel that focus on the legal system were less interesting than the events that led to the arrest in the first place. The writing was sometimes overblown and the plethora of similies and metaphors needed to be pared down. The narrative tension was a bit uneven with it substantially increasing in the second half of the novel as new revelations came out in Noa's account which alter the reader's idea of just what the truth is in this case. But the novel as a whole did pick up as it went on, becoming more compelling reading further into the narrative.

In a perfect world, we punish the guilty but sometimes guilt and punishment are only tangentially related. And teasing out this relationship is one of the things that the reader is asked to do here. A dark, occasionally surprising tale of manipulation, subterfuge, and culpability, ultimately, this novel asks, what is the truth and what would justice be for that truth? I felt a drawn out, tightening, squeezing suffocation as I read this which wasn't the world's most comfortable sensation but it certainly raises disturbing questions about guilt and innocence, the role of our upbringing in forming our moral character, and our justice system as it stands now.

For more information about Elizabeth L. Silver and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Thank you so much for an informative, interesting review of this book that is up high on my wishlist! Despite the flaws you have pointed out, I still want to read this book and then give my personal review of it. It seems like the type of story that cries out for discussion. I have an interest in the death penalty subject because a close relative is a corrections officer in a state prison, so I have some knowledge of the penal system. Thanks again; I enjoy my visits to your blog!

  2. Sounds like too heavy a book for me, but interesting none the less.

  3. I have this in my stacks and am honestly a bit nervous about it - but it does sound fascinating, even though quite dark.

  4. Wow, I can't imagine being a juror on a capital murder case ... I don't envy your friend in the least.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour.


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