FICTION: A woman on death row can’t wait for her life to be over, but her victim’s mother wants to keep her alive.
In this tense and multi-layered first novel of life on death row, Elizabeth L. Silver offers her readers a close look at a 35-year-old cynic, a woman who hates most of the people in her life and wants to get to her execution date (six months away) as quickly as possible. Simply and eloquently, Noa reflects upon the flaws of her past and explains the personal changes that come with incarceration: “No former splinters of your personality carry over into prison life. No relationships, fictional or otherwise, accompany them either. … You are now the person everyone knows you to be.” Noa’s powerful voice, full of attitude and alienation, commands attention throughout the book.
Noa’s poetic sociology is only one part of the story, though. Why is she in? Although Silver keeps us waiting for the details, she sends Noa a visitor early on. Marlene Dixon is a high-powered lawyer who wants to work on a clemency appeal for Noa. Marlene is also the mother of Sarah, the woman Noa murdered. What could Marlene’s motives possibly be? We need to wait for these, too, but Marlene figures high on Noa’s hate-list. Throughout the novel Silver gives us a counter-narrative in a set of italicized letters Marlene pens to her dead daughter, full of grief and rage, and even a bit of blurring: Murderer and victim disconcertingly merge in Marlene’s mind.
So on another level, “The Execution” tells the story of desperate parents trying to keep their children in their lives. From Noa’s side of the bars, we hear her account of her long-estranged father, Caleb, “a weeklong sperm donor,” who suddenly shows up in Noa’s life 20 years later. And in a messy sort of symmetry, Sarah is involved in this nexus of confused relationships. It’s not difficult to empathize with Noa’s all-embracing hatred.
Silver describes herself as “ninety percent novelist. Ten percent lawyer. One hundred percent neurotic.” Novelist and lawyer add up to 100 percent by themselves, though, and her legal background lends to the realism and the pathos of Noa’s circumstances. Like most lawyer/novelists, Silver permits herself some legal grandstanding — the counselor has a lot of objections — but she allows Noa to unfold her unusual tale with candor and dignity. In Noa, Silver has created an articulate and intelligent protagonist who asks us to revisit our existing notions of victimhood.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.