I swear to tell the truth
As Elizabeth L. Silver’s debut novel opens, one crucial fact is made abundantly clear: inmate Noa P. Singleton sits on Pennsylvania’s death row awaiting execution for a crime that she committed. It’s the why behind her actions, and not the question of her guilt or innocence, that remains woefully unanswered. With just six months to go until her execution date, could the sudden appearance of her victim’s mother, and the promise of clemency she carries with her, hold the key to unlocking the mystery behind Noa’s actions?
Oh if only things were ever that simple.
Told primarily through the first-person narration of Noa as she slowly approaches her state appointed date with death, and secondarily by way of letters written from her victim’s mother Marlene to her dead daughter Sarah, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a suspenseful, realistic, character driven novel that initially challenges the reader to question their beliefs about capital punishment, and guilt itself from the most unlikely of angles. However, as pages are frantically turned, and new details about Noa’s rocky life continue to emerge, the question transforms and becomes less about guilt, punishment, and placing blame on any one party, and more about the extenuating circumstances that led to the action itself.
The important fact that seems to all too often get lost in our rush to pass judgment and affirm guilt with regards to murder is that in many cases, to understand why the crime occurred, one must take the time to understand the history of the individual who committed it and remember at all times that regardless of the act, they are still a human being and as such, are defined by much more than a single action. As the reader learns more about Noa and the events in her life that so profoundly shaped the person she became, Silver raises the question not of nature vs. nurture, but perhaps nurture vs. education. It’s becomes clear that through hard work and studying Noa was able to create opportunities for herself that otherwise would not have existed, but in those crucial split-second moments that require critical decision making skills, will everything she struggled to learn aid her, or is she destined to fall back on the skills passed down by way of her fractured upbringing in order to survive? There are no easy answers.
Possessing the deft skill of master wordsmith operating at the peak of her potential, Silver introduces readers to a flawed cast of characters that feel so genuine, and so beautifully nuanced, that one almost believes them to be real. Filtered through Noa’s perception, her mother, half-brother and estranged father, her victim and her victim’s mother, and the lawyer desperately working against the clock on her behalf all shimmer in the vibrant beauty of their strengths, but more importantly their failings. It’s the success of this attention to detail, this ability to take potentially unlikable, un-relatable characters and thoughtfully propel them into the grey area that exists beyond our rigid definitions of good and bad without ever losing sight of their humanity that ultimately makes The Execution of Noa P. Singleton such an engaging piece of fiction.
From the very first page which immediately draws the reader into the desperate world of a small, innocent child, to the explosive thought-provoking finale that leaves one questioning the very definition of justice, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is executed to glorious perfection.
Charles Baxter, Gish Jen, Charles McGrath, Rick Simonson, and Rene Steinke, do you hear that incessant pounding at your door? That’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton demanding consideration for this year’s National Book Award. I implore you to let it in, and I dare you to find 10 pieces of fiction published this year that are more worthy of long list consideration.
Noa P. Singleton has never denied killing Sarah Dixon. When the crime was committed ten years ago, Noa never did much to defend herself, even during the trial. She didn’t even testify on her own behalf. None of this made it very difficult for a jury to quickly convict Noa as guilty and sentence her to the death penalty.
A decade later, Noa sits in prison awaiting her own death. But just six months before she is to succumb to “the needle,” she receives an unexpected visitor – Marlene Dixon, the mother of Noa’s victim. Marlene tells Noa that she has had a change of heart about her sentence, and while she believes that Ms. Singleton should spend the rest of her life in prison, she should not be put to death. Marlene agrees to file petitions, speak with lawyers, politicians, and use her wealth and influence in any way necessary to reduce Noa’s sentence to life imprisonment. But Noa’s life will only be spared on one condition – that she reveal to Marlene exactly why she killed her daughter 10 years ago. It doesn’t sound like much to ask, but as Noa’s story unfolds, we learn that the truth is much more complicated for everyone involved, including Noa and Marlene.
With urgency, curiosity, horror, and tension, readers will see the truth of Noa and Marlene’s memories, but not exactly the truth of the story. As Silver so expertly demonstrates, trauma inevitably affects memories, judgment, and emotions, and both Noa and Marlene recall very different version of the events leading to Sarah’s death. And while Marlene is undoubtedly suffering from the loss of her only daughter, Noa was suffering long before she knew of Sarah’s existence. I don’t want to include any spoilers here, but let’s just say that Marlene may not be the innocent, victimized person that she proclaims.
But to be completely clear, this is not just a novel about the death penalty and the mystery of a murder. Silver does not actively oppose or support capital punishment, but rather encourages readers to untangle the complicated web of emotions, trauma, grief, regret, and facts that can lead to such a sentencing. Whether we as jurors, readers, lawyers, perpetrators or victims realize it or not, action and consequence are not as simple as facts and events. A single, life-changing occurrence cannot be judged impartially or cleanly, because there is nothing clean or simple about motive.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
By Elizabeth L. Silver