An unforgettable and unpredictable debut novel of guilt, punishment, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive
Noa P. Singleton never spoke a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ended with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, having accepted her fate, she sits on death row in a maximum-security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.
Meanwhile, Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She claims to have changed her mind about the death penalty and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute Noa's sentence to life in prison, in return for the one thing Noa can trade: her story. Marlene desperately wants to understand the events that led to her daughter’s death—events that only Noa knows of and has never shared. Inextricably linked by murder but with very different goals, Noa and Marlene wrestle with the sentences life itself can impose while they confront the best and worst of what makes us human.
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About the Author
ELIZABETH L. SILVER grew up in New Orleans and Dallas and currently lives in Los Angeles. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in England, and a JD from Temple University Beasley School of Law. She has taught ESL in Costa Rica, writing and literature at several universities in Philadelphia, and worked as a research attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
It all started six months before X‑day when Oliver Stansted and Marlene Dixon visited the Pennsylvania Institute for Women in Muncy. Oliver trotted eagerly in first, like a wet surfer trying so desperately not to miss his second wave. He had thin brown hair that hung limply around the cherry contour of his face in a style that was probably at least a decade behind the times. (I know this because it was the hairstyle of choice when I was arrested.) A lone dimple nicked the center of his chin in a clean gunshot.
I was in the diminutive holding cell with the telephone receivers where they dragged me whenever I had a visitor. Visitors weren’t rare--a story for the local newspaper? a feature for a news magazine television series? a book deal?--but when Oliver Stansted came up for his first breath, firm but anxious, steady but nervous, twenty, maybe twenty-five, I realized that my expectations would quickly need readjustment.
“Noa, is it?” he said, speaking impossibly close to the receiver. “Noa Singleton?”
The aristocratic Noa is it? British phrasing of his greeting skipped upward at the end of the statement as if it were a posh question in one syllable. Confidence and naïveté burst in the same hyperenunciated greeting.
“My name is Oliver Stansted and I’m a lawyer in Philadelphia,” he said, looking down to his little script. His was handwritten in red ink. “I work for a nonprofit organization that represents inmates on death row and at various other points of the appeals process, and I’ve just recently been appointed to your case.”
“Okay,” I said, staring at him.
He was not the first wide-eyed advocate to use me as a bullet point on his climb to success. I was used to these unexpected visits: the local news reporters shortly after I was arrested, the national ones after my conviction, the appointed appellate lawyers year after begrudging year as I was drafted into the futile cycle of appeals without anyone truly listening to me explain that I had no interest in pursuing further legal action, that I just wanted to get to November 7 as quickly as possible. They, like this new one, had no concern for my choices.
“So what do you want with me?” I asked. “I’m out of appeals. They’re killing me in November. ‘First woman to fry in years.’ You read the news, don’t you?”
Mr. Oliver Stansted forced another smile to replicate the one that had deflated while I spoke. He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it out of the clean part on the side, all in order to appear the very image of a public interest lawyer; a die-hard anti–death penalty advocate who chose to marry the alleged system of justice instead of entering a legal union of his own. And, like all the others who came to me before the middle-age conversion of Republicanism set in, even his voice was typecast to match his hairstyle and choice of wardrobe: docile as a prostrated ocean, as if he had slipped from his mother’s womb begging for a nonprofit position and studio apartment to match. I hated him instantly.
“Well, despite the fact that you’re out of appeals, I’ve been chatting with some of your lawyers, and--”
“--which ones?” I jumped. “Stewart Harris? Madison McCall?”
I’d been sitting in this cubicle for nearly a decade listening to a veritable rainbow of lawyers talk at me about the lowly little trial attorneys they thought screwed me over.
“Tell me this, Mr. Oliver Stansted. Why am I supposed to sit here and destroy their careers just so you can feel like you’re doing the right thing?”
He smiled again as if I had just complimented him.
“Well, I have spoken with Mr. Harris about some of the things that happened at your trial.”
“Harris is useless. What about McCall?”
He nodded and I could tell he’d prepared for this visit.
“Unfortunately, he’s since passed.”
“Passed?” I laughed. “No euphemisms here, Oliver. Ollie. Look around. I don’t think any one of us deserves a gentler explanation. What was it? Cancer? AIDS? I knew he slept around. Maybe it was syphilis.”
“There was a fire at his office,” he conceded. “He wasn’t able to get out in time. He died from smoke inhalation.”
My head nodded three short times. Things like this weren’t supposed to impact people like me.
“I see,” I finally said.
“I’ve also spoken to some of your appellate lawyers,” he added, moving on. “The habeas ones.”
“What did they tell you? That I was abused by my uncle? That I’m mentally unstable? That I didn’t mean to do it? That there’s something in my past that should give the court cause to spare me?”
I waited for a comeback. They always have one. It’s like law school trains these junkies to masticate language as if it’s gum. Stick a slice in your mouth, chew on it, blow it full of hot air, and then spit it on the ground when it no longer tastes good.
“No,” he said. “Not exactly.”
“So why are you here, then? I’ve come to terms. It’s over.” He followed my lips as I spoke, as if the Plexiglas between us stifled his voice. “And if I’m okay with it, you should be okay with it. You don’t even know me.”
“The thing is, we really do believe that you could be a good case for clemency.”
“We?” I asked.
“Yes, we think you’re in a remarkably unique position that could make a strong case for filing a clemency petition.”
And there we had it, the perennial reason for the visit. A deep-seated desire to right a wrong. Or wrong a right. Or right a wrong that was done rightly for someone who did something wrong. But there was nothing more to hear. He might as well have handed over another stack of appeals, new evidence on my behalf--all futile attempts of desperation that nearly every other person with a JD who’s met me has already tried.
“You think I’m wrongly convicted, don’t you?” I smiled. “You want to start your career off with a bowl of karma so big you’ll be set for all the nasty stuff you’ll do in the future when you work for a multinational bank or reinsurance company or something like that. Am I right?”
He didn’t reply at first.
“I’m right, right?”
Again, no reply.
I sighed. “Please.”
He looked around cautiously. “Innocence is always a factor to discuss, especially when dealing with executions.” He almost whispered, placing extra emphasis on the word innocence, as if it actually meant something to him alone.
The truth is, at one point, I did contemplate my innocence, but it was short lived, like adolescent lust or a craving for chocolate.
“Did you know, Ollie, that there are, like, five thousand lonely women in Europe who are dying to marry all the men in prison?” He didn’t respond. I don’t think he was amused. “You’re British, right?”
“Technically yes.” He nodded, not realizing I was barely listening. “I’m actually Welsh. I was born in Cardiff.”
“Well then. Guess how many Welsh Romeos we women have?”
Mute. He was mute.
I lifted my hand to my mouth as a whisper cone. “I’ll give you a clue. It’s the same amount as the Russian ones.”
Still nothing. His reticence wasn’t much of a surprise. Silence in retaliation did have its roots in proper places. After all, he walked in trying to act like Atticus Finch but didn’t realize that smug complacence on the body of a pale-skinned soccer player from Wales wasn’t exactly the most effective legal tactic.
“Ollie, you’ve got to be quick on your toes if you want to make it with the likes of these other defense attorneys,” I said, snapping my fingers. “They come in here semiannually, begging for my free hour a day, you know. Come on, you can do better.”
When he didn’t kick the ball back my way, I figured that was that for this umpteenth self-righteous solicitor.
“Fair enough,” I said, and then put the phone down. “Guard!”
“Noa, please listen,” he finally said, faintly. I could barely hear his words leaking from the receiver in my resting hand. “Please pick up the phone.”
He held out a hand to the division. Four of his fingers kissed the Plexiglas wall so that I could see their blueprints, little lines curved within the cushion of his surprisingly meaty fingertips. Their heat fogged the glass.
“We very much would like to talk to you.”
I waited for him to follow that statement with a name, but not one materialized. I almost turned away when he knocked again on the Plexiglas wall, imploring me to listen. A name drifted faintly through the noise. Hands pantomimed, beseeching me to pick up the receiver. Place it near your ear, I heard. Almost ten years after my incarceration, staring at that mismatched set of Welsh teeth, I could have sworn that Ollie Stansted was saying Sarah’s mother’s name.
“We?” I asked, eventually picking up the receiver.
He smiled, relieved.
“I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Marlene Dixon, and she believes that you should live. That is why we believe--the both of us--that you’re a viable candidate for clemency. It usually is a routine, dead-end last option, but because of her relationship with both . . .”
I stopped listening at “viable.” The last of his imprints had faded on the Plexiglas, and all that was left was a greasy translucent wall. It was the only thing I could focus on at that moment. The thick manufactured division between those who live and those who, well, live another way.
“Really,” I finally replied. “Marlene . . . ?”
The polysyllabic connection of letters that spelled out Mahrrrr-leeen Dihhhck-sunn brought me to nauseous self-flagellation every time I heard it, so for the last ten years, I’ve tried never to think of those sounds together. Ollie, clearly trying to think on his toes to compete no doubt with the likes of people just like Marlene Dixon, didn’t stop to listen to what I was saying, or not saying, or intimating, or, I don’t know, protesting in unrepentant silence. He was a quick learner--at least that’s one thing to admire about him on first impression.
“Mrs. Dixon has recently started a nonprofit organization called Mothers Against Death and doesn’t feel that even the cruelest of killers deserves to be murdered by the state. I’m one of the attorneys volunteering with MAD.”
The four syllables of her name continued reverberating in the telephone wire between us like a plucked string on a guitar.
“Mothers Against Death?” I said, forcing a laugh.
“Uh‑huh,” he said.
“Mothers Against Death?” I said again, this time, actually feeling the humor flush through my voice. “You’re kidding? MAD? Mad, like, you mean, like, angry?”
Oliver Stansted swallowed and looked back down to his lonely feet before pulling out a stack of papers. “Well, yes, M‑A‑D.” He spelled out the acronym, pausing between each letter with perfect diction. It must have been that trusty Oxbridgian education. Pygmalionesque right down to the pronunciation of the English language.
“Isn’t that a drunk driving group? Has she been sued yet for copyright infringement?” I laughed. “Oh, wouldn’t that be poetic.”
“That’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD,” he corrected, punctuating the extra D with discernible effort.
“MADD,” I recited, enunciating the monosyllabic word as clearly as possible. “MAD,” I tried again in the same inflection, as if articulating the difference between their and they’re. “They sound the same to me.”
“Please,” he said, rather impatiently.
“So what is it that the formidable Mrs. Dixon wants with me?” I finally asked. “Last I checked, I’m fairly certain she wanted to witness the execution. She testified at my penalty hearing, you know.”
I couldn’t tell if he already knew this or if he was still waiting on that memo to arrive at his desk.
“I believe she said that she thought the death penalty was the single most profound form of punishment to grace our nation’s system of justice, and one that should be reserved for only the most egregious of crimes and the most horrific of people who could be stopped by no other means than deactivating their path of terror.” I paused, flipping through the library of scenes in my mind. “And, if I remember correctly, she declared that, quote, ‘no person more suitably fit into the suit of a deserving body of that precious designer as did Noa P. Singleton.’ Closed quote,” I dictated.
Oliver Stansted pulled out a legal pad, clicked the top of a ballpoint pen, and placed them both on the table.
“Did she tell you that?” I asked.
“Well, things have changed for her since then.”
“Like I said, she formed this organization--”
“--right, you said. Mothers Against Drunk Driving--”
“--and she no longer believes, as you say, that the death penalty is the most profound form of punishment.”
Mr. Stansted, refusing to acknowledge me, continued as if he had planned this speech for days and would get through it no matter the cost.
“She now believes it to be archaic, barbaric, and contrary to any goal that can be found in your country’s history and purpose.” Oliver stopped speaking for a full fifteen seconds before he continued. “Are you following?”
“Oh yes. Perfectly. But what if I believe in the death penalty? What if I actually believe in ‘an eye for an eye’?”
He stared directly back at me as if he believed I was lying. As if his beliefs were superior to mine, merely because he had an accent and, once upon a time, I had a tan.
“You don’t really believe that, do you, Noa?” He folded his arms, the right on top of his left. “I know you don’t actually believe that.”
“Mr. Stansted, come on. I’m not looking for sympathy.”
“There are so few statistics from appeals for executions that have been turned down at this level--at the point of clemency, the absolute last moment to save a life,” he pleaded. “We have to do it. We need to do it. Whether it works or not, we need to know the pattern of the governor at this point in the process. If groups like MAD and others can’t see and document patterns--the patterns of the judges and juries for sending inmates to death row, the patterns for the appellate courts for affirming those sentences, and now this final pattern of governors who deny final requests for clemency--it will be harder to present a proper image to the public of how egregious this system is. Without those statistics, the government is never going to realize what sort of laws it perpetuates. This barbarism, this ancient form of punishment that offers no deterrence whatsoever to . . .”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is an amazing debut novel from Elizabeth L. Silver. The relationship between the convicted murder Noa and the victim's mother Marlene is a fantastic voyage of words. I highly recommend this book.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a remarkable debut novel from Elizabeth L. Silver. The characters are well developed. The plot is interesting and well timed. I would highly recommend this book as a great summer read.
Silver writes Noa's incarceration scenes with empathy and integrity. The reader is dropped into a world not many of us know (thank goodness), and Noa's sense of isolation is palpable. Noa comes to believe that she belongs there, saying"it's the internal acceptance that finally you have become the person you were meant to be. When you enter, true, you are given a new number, a new residence, and a new wardrobe; but is is only when you place those garments upon your limbs that realize they were meant for no one but you. No former splinters of your personality carry over into prison life. No relationships, fictional or otherwise, accompany them either. Any superficial intimacy you claim to have experienced with another (whether consanguineous or not) when you wore any color other than cocoa brown fades as quickly as a puff of smoke. You are now the person everyone knows you to be."Reading this deeply affecting novel will have you questioning the use and human cost of capital punishment. Silver sprinkles in some jaw-dropping revelations, from secret relationships to incidents in the Noa's past that are stunning and also explain much of Noa's willingness to accept her fate. The suspense here is so well done. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton put me in mind of another novel I read with an unreliable female character- Marcy Dermanksy's Bad Marie. They have the same dark tone, and unforgettable protagonists. If you like a story that will make you think and question human nature, this is the novel for you. I'm still thinking about it days after I have finished it. Silver's debut novel has me looking for more from her in the future.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a stellar debut novel about a convicted killer awaiting execution and her reflections on different relationships in her life, most importantly those with her parents. It really causes you to pause and think about capital punishment.
Loved this book. Couldn't put it down. Two thumbs up!
The story was okay, but the quality of the writing is terrible--it reads like it was rushed to print without any editing at all. Typos and purple prose galore. I got it on sale and still feel like I overpaid. It detracts from the reader's enjoyment and the author's and publisher's reputations when such a shoddy job is presented as a finished product.
It is pretty obvious that Elizabeth L. Silver wanted to impress with her debut novel about a woman, Noa P. Singleton, who is on Death Row & the story that brought her there. Unfortunately, Noa is rather unlikeable--as are most of the characters--& Silver comes off as a bit pretentious; did she have to use the thesaurus every other word to describe this & that? And although smart sounding, I was only looking for a beach read, not a legal course, or trial summary, or jackass characters.
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A morbid central plot, but presented in an interesting way with the person on death row telling the story popping in to the past and back to the present to catch the reader up on all the important details. Noa P. Singleton is awaiting her execution day and it has been set, but out of the blue comes the mother of her victim claiming to help her get clemency and this is where the real story begins.
I had higher hopes for this book, but it was ok. I thought there would be more twists and turns, but sadly it was fairly predictable. If you like crime type mysteries and want an easy read then you might enjoy it. The characters were good and the tension built throughout the novel, but in the end there was no satisfying climax or surprise.
The Best Book I’ve Read in a While Noa has 6 months to live, the state of PA is going to execute her for the murder of a young girl. Her newest attorney, who believes he can get her clemency, has no idea where to start, so he asks her to share her life story. As we travel though her past and combine it with her present, we are treated to a spell-binding story, full of intrigue, mystery, and enough twists and turns to keep the pages flipping. A brilliant novel that begs to be shared with as many friends as possible.
I really enjoyed this book. Not your typical "nice" characters. The author makes you wonder why and there is enough suspence to keep you reading to find out why.
A study of a convicted murderer on death row, as her life is recounted in the final months awaiting her execution, is the subject of this first novel by an author with three college degrees, including one in law. At the same time, it delves into her relationship with her mother, her father, and others who have interacted with her, especially Marlene, the mother of the victim, who is not a particularly sympathetic character. There is no suspense with regard to the ultimate execution of Noa P. Singleton, this fact is included in the title. Whatever suspense exists derives from the introduction of a possible clemency petition by the mother of the murder victim, a well-known Philadelphia attorney. Who, by the way, initially demanded the death penalty and then supposedly years later approached Noa on behalf of an organization she founded, Mothers Against Death, claiming a change of heart. Apparently, a major point of the novel is the juxtaposition of Noa and Marlene and their motivations. About the only truly insightful looks into Marlene are in the form of letters to her daughter following her death, and these are really superficial and lack sufficient depth to create either sympathy for the mother or deeper knowledge as to why she has acted as she did. To tell the truth, for this reader the writing was too wordy, and the novel’s construction somewhat artificial.
I thought the author wrote her story well but the story itself was relentlessly depressing. I got a little more than half way through and gave it up.
Revenge is good. >:3
2.5 Stars I don't really know what to say about this book. It was OK, but there was so much opportunity for it to be so much better. The title of the book pretty much tells you what you need to know, but story for how Noa got on death row had SO MUCH potential, and it was pretty much a let down. There were so many opportunities for twists and turns that the author did not maximize on. I finished the book, so there was definitely some element there that kept me interested, but all in all, I wouldn't really recommend this book.
Something about the author's writing style makes this seemingly interesting book very difficult to read. Genuinely wanted to enjoy it but just couldn't get into it.
You will need a dictionary to read this book. The author tried too hard with all the big words. It was hard to read as you have to think about the words. It would have made a very good book without all the big words.
I really enjoyed reading this thrilling debut novel. I was as invested in noas fate as i was Jacobs in Defending Jacob .very interesting and thought provoking questions are brought up. Definately recommended if u enjoyed Defending Jacob or Gone girl. Am anticipating future writings by this author.
This is a book that I’ve had on my TBR list for a year now. After reading quite a few books for tours, I decided it was time to take this one out to read. Before reading the book, it is hard for anyone to pick this book up and not already have an opinion about the death penalty and the inmates on death row. However, regardless of a reader’s stance on the prison system, the judicial system, and crimes/punishments, this book is about the story of one woman: a woman who could really be anyone that grew up in a single parent home, with a promiscuous lifestyle, who has a father that has been in and out of prison all his of life. Her life could have turned out so much differently, being the salutatorian for her high school class, being accepted into Yale, and trying to make a life for herself. However, her past is always haunting her and she is never fully able to forgive herself and move on. Noa is only 10 months old when she has her first experience with lies and the judicial system. Her first experience is that of her mother, who is a struggling actress that makes a rash judgement to protect herself from the possibility of jail or child services. This stays with Noa. Honestly, I don’t have any recollection before the age of 4, but this seems to be ingrained in Noa (or not), as she says that her memory is foggy and it’s hard to separate fact from fantasy. However, I somehow believe her because it starts the cycle of loss, feeling less than, isolation, and hopelessness. While the story is told through Noa’s viewpoint, the reader will get glimpses inside Marlene’s head, through her letters to her daughter (Sarah), who is murdered. While Noa’s life is that of someone who is tragically put in the line of fire due to circumstances by her parents, it is Marlene’s story that most interested me. Marlene is a woman of influence, with a lot of money, who realizes early on that she really has no control over her daughter-her only child. Paying off someone to follow her daughter and then threatening both that person and the boyfriend, doesn’t end there. Marlene decides to mask her way back into Noa’s life, under the guise of MAD (Mothers Against Death), to find out what happened to her daughter’s last moments of life. In some ways, Noa vindicates herself because she doesn’t give Marlene those last moments, although I don’t Marlene truly wanted to know. I think Marlene has loads of guilt, hidden under her callousness towards others and her brashness, and she somehow wants to know that Noa doesn’t blame her for the events that happened leading up to Sarah’s death. In some ways, if Noa doesn’t place any blame on Marlene, then Marlene can feel justified in her own role with Sarah’s death. In the end, everyone wants something from Noa: her compliance, her silence, her devotion-and when they get that-they leave. In the end, the judicial system only hears what attorneys want the jurors to hear, rich people get passes, poor people get passed the buck, and our system is truly screwed. But there is hope. There is hope, everyday, with the choices people make as humans, as parents, as children, as a society. This is a book that is very character driven, with not a lot of unraveling until 200 pages in, but it’s still a great book. It is at times dry, and sometimes it seems that the novel drifts, but be patient- there is a reason for it all. I don’t think this book can be read without discussing it afterwards. It’s what makes this book unique-because the dialogue continues long after Noa’s story, long after Marlene’s and long after the last page. It is thought provoking, would make for a great book club discussion, and also in a class to talk about family cycles, the judicial system, and victims of circumstance.
The narrator is a young woman who is a death-row inmate. We slowly learn about her crime and the others involved. While none of the characters are especially likeable, I did feel sympathetic toward the narrator. I enjoyed reading this on my nook because I used the built-in dictionary a lot due to the challenging vocabulary!
An intricate life story with jaw