When I picked up The Execution of Noa P. Singleton I was certain it wasn’t a comedy and the chance for an uplifting ending was slim. What I didn’t expect was how deep my level of engagement would be. Elizabeth L. Silver has crafted a novel so unpredictable, my own response to the ending still amazes me.
The novel opens Six Months Before X-Day—the story delivered to us in countdown format. This ominous structure lies in the back of our minds and adds to the turmoil we feel as the events of Noa’s life unfold. She is a most curious narrator. On the second page she sets herself up as unreliable.
Sadly though, my memories are starting to fade in here. Events slip off their shelves into the wrong year, and I’m not always sure that I’m putting them back into their proper home.
A page later she confesses.
I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.
On the surface the juxtaposition of these statements seem to confirm her unreliability, but as Noa shares the events of her case with the lawyer, who has been hired by her victim’s mother for the sole purpose of securing clemency, I found it impossible not to believe her account. She is a character who refuses to soft soap anything.
I’m in prison, for Christ’s sake. It’s literally a vacuum into which people are sucked to clean up the outside.
Yet, over and over she insists her memory is faulty. Her persistence led me to wonder whether or not it was only a tactic to somehow win me over. That’s when I recognized how powerful a first person narrative is because these narrators are totally in control to manipulate and redirect the reader anyway they choose. Noa gets her hooks into us first through her honest communication about her situation.
I lie down so much that my body can’t always handle the mere act of standing upright. Sometimes, when a guard comes to my door and lets me know I have a visitor like Oliver or Marlene, I stand from my bed, and instead of walking toward the bars, I fall to the floor instantly, my muscles atrophied, my limbs bereft from activity, my bones hollow and echoed.
She massages our empathy by insisting her memories are as weak as her body and we begin to wonder if, perhaps, she is confused about her own guilt. Once Noa and the readers are on equally wobbly ground, Elizabeth L. Silver makes an extraordinary choice as a writer to avoid the Why of her protagonist’s story.
Everyone is so fascinated with the accursed “why” of my crime. They are obsessed with the organic origin of my hate as if it were born in some petri dish, fused together by the toxic roots of my genetic tree.
This choice deepens our investment because without Noa’s why it is up to us to figure out the truth behind her crime. We are able to do so in the same way a juror would by listening to the facts as they trickle in over the six months period the lawyer has to prepare the petition for clemency. The slowness with which the facts are revealed is another way Silver keeps us hooked. Each time a previous fact is clarified or something new is revealed about Noa, or any of the other characters connected to the crime, the information is so significant or surprising we second-guess our last decision about Noa’s guilt, keeping us uncertain and putting us on shaky ground as we progress through the novel.
Here is what amazed me most about Silver’s novel. Once the truth was finally laid bare about Noa’s crime and punishment, I was overwhelmed with anger about our criminal justice system. And at the same time, I recognized the more aware we are of injustice, the stronger we become to do battle for positive change. So, although The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a dark tale it holds the potential to uplift us.