Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Crown: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth Silver

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

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

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

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

by Elizabeth Silver

As titles go, Elizabeth L. Silver's The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is bluntly straightforward, and the directness continues as Noa introduces herself to us from death row in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women, where she's been sentenced after the murder of Sarah Dixon. Her guilt is never in question: "I know I did it," she says. "The state knows I did it, though they never asked why... I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated yellow zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once."

And yet, six months before her scheduled execution, Noa receives a visit from Oliver Stansted, a British attorney doing a stint at a nonprofit organization specializing in death row cases. She's not interested in his help, until he mentions that his boss is Marlene Dixon, Sarah's mother--who petitioned the court vigorously for the death penalty at Noa's sentencing. Ten years later, though, Marlene has created Mothers Against Death, or M.A.D. ("Isn't that a drunk driving group?" Noa scoffs), in an effort to secure clemency for her daughter's killer.

At this point, the straightforwardness ends. It's clear from their initial conversation that both Noa and Marlene are holding back from each other--and from Oliver--and Silver dedicates the novel to exposing their secrets. Some of the revelations come early; it's not giving much away, for example, to let you know that Marlene isn't really acting from a newfound compassion--if anything, she wants to make Noa's life worse. "Noa will never see the light of day," she assures Sarah in the first of several letters spilling out her thoughts. Life imprisonment, Marlene believes is, "a far worse punishment for taking you away than getting to leave this life before me."

Marlene's letters serve as a punctuation to Noa's telling of her life story--and, as with so many gallows broadsides, she's got quite the story to tell. "The only child of Miss Teenage California 1970 and a weeklong sperm donor whose name my mother claimed she couldn't recall," Noa's earliest memory is of being dropped on her head at the age of 10 months, an accident which her mother covers up by calling in a phony robbery. A paramedic assures Noa's mom that she's just suffered a bruise; in reality, she informs us, "my arm never properly healed."

After a childhood and adolescence of similar not-so-benign neglect, Noa graduates salutatorian from her high school and receives a postcard from her father in Philadelphia. She enrolls at the University of Pennsylvania, though her college career is cut short by a horrific accident that approaches the status of an urban legend among her fellow undergraduates. Then, after a string of hang-up calls, her estranged father finally gets in touch. Noa approaches the reunion as cynically as you might expect under the circumstances, but that's not why the situation deteriorates until it starts to echo a classical tragedy.

Though Noa's story is ultimately tragic, it is flecked with dark humor, from her mother's string of "athletic" boyfriends ("and by runners, I mean competitive speed-walkers") to the moment in her trial when a police officer established her hardened criminal tendencies by recounting how she shoplifted a pack of gum and a bra as a teenager. From her cell, Noa comments on her fellow inmates and braces herself for the inevitable outcome, meditating on such matters as her final meal: "To be honest, I think I'm choosing [escargot] because I want to watch everyone mispronounce it."

Because Noa's guilt is never in question, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton depends on her strength as a character--and, to a lesser extent, Marlene's--to keep us caring about the story long enough to get to the why of Sarah's death, and Silver works hard to establish Noa as a sympathetic anti-heroine, to help us understand why Noa has accepted the outcome of her trial without resistance. "America is not against the death penalty," Noa says. "And to be honest, I'm not entirely certain I am, either." But why does Noa believe that she deserves to die, and why does she eventually allow Oliver to raise her hopes--even just a little? And what secrets is she taking with her to the grave? With her debut novel, Silver gives Noa a voice powerful enough to make us want to know the answers. --Ron Hogan

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780385347433, June 11, 2013

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

Elizabeth L. Silver: Manna from Literary Heaven

photo: Marion Ettlinger

Elizabeth L. Silver was born in New Orleans and lives in Los Angeles. She holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in England, and a J.D. from Temple University Beasley School of Law. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton (Crown, June 11, 2013) is her debut novel.

"I spent about five years thinking I was writing a little literary novel about a woman on death row," Elizabeth L. Silver said when we e-mailed her about The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. As publication date draws near, though, the adjectives have become more commercial: "I've heard all sorts of additional identifiers: psychological, legal, crime, upmarket, noir, thriller," she commented. "It's exciting for me to see how different people interpret the novel. I'm very tentative to put a label on anything, though, since regardless the label, I fear it could disappoint readers who will be expecting a certain kind of novel--whatever that kind is."

This is Silver's first published novel, after what she describes as "a pretty standard M.F.A. path" punctuated by the occasional short story in literary magazines, a period during which she also wrote another novel that made the rounds "with three agents, dozens of submissions to probably every publisher in New York, and as many passes." Then she went on to law school, where she also tinkered with "a Jewish family drama that I never showed to anyone outside of my writing groups." It was in her last semester of law school that she took a course on capital punishment--her second choice after failing to get into a public defender's course--where she had an experience that pushed her in a new literary direction.

Before the class, she had some interest in the capital punishment debate, but "it wasn't the top issue on my radar," she admitted. "A key question that had always frustrated and confused me was the immediate answer one has to the obvious prompt: Do you believe in the death penalty?" People who support it don't hesitate to say so; others will express their opposition, then concede exceptions for certain crimes. "This is like being just a little bit pregnant," she said. "You are either for it or against it. I welcome discussions for both beliefs provided there is evidence to support each argument, but I find it is critical to understand why you believe a certain position."

A few weeks before her graduation, Silver attended a symposium where the lawyers and journalists debating the death penalty were joined by a victim's mother. "What struck me was the solitary presence of a victim's advocate on the dais," she recalled. "Every other person, rightly or wrongly, was passionately advocating for this new sort of victim, the death row inmate, which is hard to accept if there are no questions of innocence. Throughout the discussion, the victim's mother seemed terribly lonely to me and, in an instant, the premise of the novel formed in my head." That night, she found the voice of Noa, the death row inmate; soon after, she wrote the first of several letters Marlene Dixon pens to her dead daughter, Noa's victim.

"I knew before I started the novel that Marlene's voice was going to play a key role and that it would be via letter," Silver said. "I have always been drawn to the art and power of the epistolary novel, and yet in contemporary fiction, they can sometimes feel anachronistic." Here, though, the letters function as Marlene's way of hanging on to a connection with her slain daughter--in a way, they feel more realistic precisely because we know the letters will never actually reach their intended recipient, and we can accept them as pure emotional expressions. "If a character needs a letter as a crutch or a tool," Silver explained, "it doesn't feel like the author is using it as a crutch or a tool."

After graduation, Silver became a judicial clerk for a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. "The first assignment handed to me as an untapped, inexperienced lawyer was to draft a death penalty judicial opinion, reviewing the appeal from trial to decision," she said. "For two years, I read trial transcripts, reviewed appeals, researched the law, reviewed photos and evidence, and wandered into the local courthouse to watch a handful of murder trials." Then she'd go home and work on the novel. "The job was manna from literary heaven. I was never looking for a story like this, but it just sort of happened, and I'm forever grateful." --Ron Hogan

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