“A compelling, challenging and profoundly haunting novel of guilt, punishment – and the sentences that life itself can impose.”
Noa P. Singleton is on death row for the murder of Sarah Dixon and her unborn baby. Ten years have passed, years in which Noa (pronounced Noah) is seemingly resigned to her eventual death. Until the day that Sarah’s mother, Marlene Dixon, visits her in prison and invokes a last-minute clemency appeal…
Noa is the main narrator, a complex and unreliable guide to the story. And in fact, this book is full of characters that are hard to like; Noa is largely uncooperative as a narrator; her father, for all his protestations, never really convices us that he’s changed; the murdered girl is merely a cameo role; and Marlene Dixon is formidable and largely unlikeable in her exchanges with Noa. Having established the characters with such flaws, this then becomes a novel based on whose story to believe and why, rather than a book in which you will empathise with Noa or Marlene. I found the juxtaposition of Marlene as a bereaved mother, cancer survivor and campaigner against the death penalty especially fascinating when set against Noa – who understands that her trial was not fair, but seems to lack the desire to change the outcome.
At the start of the book, Marlene, despite her age and sadness, has all the energy, while the younger Noa, who you assume will fight for her remaining life, has a lethargy that her appeal lawyer struggles to lift. As the book unfolds, Marlene is revealed to be less than she appears and Noa’s original assessment of her appears to be accurate, twisting the plot.
Marlene’s motive is largely revealed in a series of letters to her dead daughter at the end of every chapter, the only direct input to the narrative from Marlene herself. The rest of the book is all Noa – and the reader, right from the start, is not sure how trustworthy she is. For most of the novel, Noa is in jail, interacting with the word from behind glass and bars and speaking through the telephone in the visitors’ room. We only visit the outside world with Noa as she describes her past – in a slow narrative that will eventually lead us to the fateful day when Sarah died.
The book is very clever and full of nuance. Noa’s surname is carefully chosen by the author; Singleton, which describes the way Noa has drifted alone through life before incarceration and, on death row, is largely held in isolation. Her fondest memories are of her best friend from school days – Persephone, whose own story is revealed as plot-changing moment later in the book, a device that has far-reaching consequences for the reader’s evaluation of Noa and her punishment.
You get a sense from reading this that the author is familiar with the topic of capital punishment and, indeed, according to her biography she has worked in the American law appeal system and studied inmates on death row as part of her law career. So while the book is fiction, and takes liberties as such, it still raises questions about the grey area between guilt and innocence and the finality of capital punishment.
Handling a difficult subject well, this is an interesting read – one that will appeal to readers of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton was never going to have a happy ending, but sometimes fiction mirrors life like that.
Many thanks to Jane for the review, and bookbridgr and Headline for the review copy.