Review of “The Execution of Noa P. Singleton” by Elizabeth L. Silver

This story by a narrator who may or may not be reliable is set in a prison, and more specifically, on death row. Noa Singleton, 35, is awaiting her day of execution after ten years of fruitless appeals, and now, six months before “X-Day,” she is approached by yet another lawyer who wants to make one last try for clemency on her behalf.

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Noa provides her history, and as she does, we gradually get an idea of why she is on death row and what really happened to put her there. We also learn about the circumstances of her life, and how this particular lawyer came to advocate on her behalf.

As the chronicle moves inexorably forward toward “X-Day”, we don’t know until the end of the book whether this latest attempt to save her life will work or not.

Discussion: Half the time, I had no idea what this author was talking about. Her prose is perplexing, affected, and overwrought. It seemed as if she was getting paid by the metaphor, relevance be damned. Here are some examples of what I considered to be overly elaborate, overly confusing, or just over-the-top:

I can see the five silver bars three feet beyond my arm’s reach. They shift into double vision as ten lines of coil, prison garments, a staff of music.”

[Prison garments? Do they have five parts or something?]

Or this nighttime scene:

Confused spears of darkness spiked through the metal bars…”

[Confused spears of darkness? I’m confused too!]

[About her newest lawyer] “…his voice [was] 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.”

[What exactly does that mean? “Prostrated ocean”? And what does that have to do with the rest of it?]

[About the mother of the murder victim who wants to understand the crime] “She’s stuck there in that ‘why’ scratch on her record repeating ad infinitum until I pluck the disc from its player, clean off the scratch with a simple puff of my lips, and hand it back to her to hear the music properly. She hasn’t a clue that records have been replaced with newer technology.”

[Okay, I was following until the last sentence. Maybe my brain needs to be replaced with newer technology…]

It was an anomalous Tuesday night in 2002 when the phone calls started. For over a week…my apartment became a torrent of moral decay. … Whirls of tornadic subjugation seeped through the little holes of the telephone receiver…”

[If this took place in Oklahoma perhaps I could understand the “tornadic subjugation” bit, but since it is Philadelphia, it sounds a bit too "anomalous" to me, one might say.]

Or this, which I think has to do with the guy speaking to her, but truly, I’m not sure:

Nothing else came out, despite his necessitous expectations.”

[Necessitous means “needy, poor, indigent.” Okay, if he is needy, or has needy “expectations,” what would that have to do with his saying more (or not), rather than say, her saying something.]

Why can’t she just speak clearly instead of trying to talk pretty someday, which brings us to….

The “metaphorgeous” phrases:

I think the thing I actually miss the most is watching a sun sit still on a solid evening hour, its talons skewering the clouds beneath.”

[Sun sitting still? Talons? What?]

And this, describing her trial (I think):

I watched from the defendant’s table during every clumsy excuse. Melodious sacraments to my dissonant entr’acte, perpetuating a system that works more often than it does not.”

OMG, I almost couldn’t take it! But, perversely, I did want to know what really happened, which of course we don’t find out until the last moment, so I did not abandon the book, although thinking of the ending brings us to…..

Was it worth it? Well, let me just say, in a covered-up very mildly hardly-at-all but just to be on the safe side I’ll call it spoilery few sentences (mouse over to make visible):

It’s all about Bad Mothers! Or maybe, the injustice of justice. Or something about the death penalty – good? Bad? I don’t know! I’m not really sure. There was too much purple covering up the prose….

Evaluation: This might appeal to book clubs, since one could debate about how it ends. If one gets that far…. [Oh but, for the food book tie-in theme, you could serve “death row food”; i.e., everyone gets to have their wildest fantasy food!]

Bring on the raw cookie dough!

Bring on the raw cookie dough!

Addendum: Someone commenting on my review on Goodreads added these two inexplicable phrases, citing them as her “favorites”. I think they are even better examples than my selections:

It [his voice] hung on my body language with protection so that each time he validated my nerves, he seemed attractive, appealing, even.”

There they were–twenty-six eyes serrating my every blink, the rising cadence of my chest, the unconscious flinch in my face when I unexpectedly sneezed. Thirteen individuals, marinating in the enclosed jury box like a carton of dried-out fruit.”

Note: This book has gotten a lot of praise from other sources.

Rating: 1.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013

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20 Responses

  1. Oh, this is grand. Necessitous, even!
    Because I was looking at this very book after work, at the bookstore. It appealed to me because a) the subject matter interests me, and b) I liked the cover. But your review has shed light on my confused spears of darkness. Like a sun that is neither moving nor sitting still, but simply, [as suns do], sinking its talons deeply into my decision to not purchase.
    Despite your final disclaimer, I trust your verdict — and shall leave this book in the prostrated ocean of “Books I Never Bought.”
    Thank you.

  2. My poor brain just exploded reading those quotes.

  3. Oh my, that was painful.

  4. As if she was getting paid by the metaphor…lol…love it!

  5. I think that prose would drive me insane. If book clubs want to discuss the death penalty, they should read Dead Man Walking.

  6. Yours is not the first wary review of this I’ve seen so I think I’ll steer clear. Sounds great in theory, but too bad the execution left a lot to be desired.

  7. I actually loved this book. I found the story to be fascinating – though the writing wasn’t superb, it did capture the tension within the story perfectly. It had me curious to find out what really happened and why it happened – I was turning pages like crazy! Sorry it didn’t work out for you.

  8. Aha! I think we’ve found your friend the blog commenter. It reads so much the same – nonsense. Throw it out on the “prostrated ocean.”

  9. Oh, I am WAY too stupid to read this book. None of that made any sense to me at all. I did read something curious about it in EW, and my antennae wiggled. To the prostrated ocean it goes.

  10. I’m reading this right now and you’ve nailed what my major issue with it is. Since I work in corrections, I’m finding much of her research to be pretty spot on, so that’s redeeming…but yeah, the language. Phew.

  11. I scratch my head perplexed as I read some of these passages:( I had high hopes for this one. Wonder what I’d think of the audio?

    Have a good weekend Jill.

  12. I had just started this book. Think I am going to put it down and move on to something else. Thanks for the heads up!

  13. Very necessitous reading, this book provides. Oh boy, I would go mad if I had to read this one. I’m sure I wouldn’t have finished it. I half-read a book recently that was similar – lots of metaphors and humongous English words meant to impress.

  14. No way! I almost didn’t make it through all the quotes you included.

  15. No one in my RSS feed has praised the book. After reading your review and the examples, I won’t be reading at all. Overwrought is right from the looks of it. Thanks for reviewing this one.

  16. 1.5? OMG. Sorry that you had to go through all of that. I would have just read the last chapter ;)

  17. Wow — now I’m even more curious about this book since someone I respect recommended it to me!!!

  18. Belated props for making it through this, Jill–your “highlights” sounded like the kind of comically nonsencial spam I receive on my blog from time to time. I just hope Margo Lanagan fans aren’t crying over your “mean” review, though! P.S. Re: Lanagan: She mentioned my infamous mean post in a fairly recent interview she did, so I’m getting all kinds of visitors to my two-sentence Tender Vittles outrage these days.

  19. oh this is simply too grand for me! and although i’m a southerner by heart and nature and we pride ourselves on living in metaphors…this one is just too much for me! LOVE LOVE LOVE this review!

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