I mentioned in a blog recently that I viewed the film The Stoning of Soraya M. about an Iranian woman being stoned to death. The film reminded me that I have read two books about women awaiting execution: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Here are my reviews of those two novels.
Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver
Thirty-five-year-old Noa is on death row; six months prior to her execution, X-Day, Marlene Dixon, a high-powered attorney and mother of the woman Noa was convicted of murdering, decides to petition for clemency and has hired a young lawyer, Oliver Stansted, to assist in having Noa’s sentence commuted. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Noa’s childhood, her single mother’s serial monogamy, her friendship with Persephone Riga, her very public miscarriage, her reconciliation with her absentee father Caleb, and the murder of Sarah Dixon. These flashbacks alternate with Marlene’s letters to her dead daughter.
Noa is not a likeable character. She feels alienated and expresses that alienation in a cynical attitude. Her voice is brusque and unemotional. The real problem, however, is that she doesn’t behave as a supposedly intelligent person would. She is the salutatorian of her graduating class and is accepted to Princeton, yet she makes terrible decisions that are illogical. For instance, her initial involvement with Marlene makes little sense. During her trial, she also refuses to participate in her own defense. Her passivity may be the result of latent guilt over an incident involving a childhood friend, but her motivation is never clarified.
The development of Marlene’s character is more interesting than the revelation of Noa’s background. Marlene is initially sympathetic: she is a grieving mother and cancer survivor. Gradually, however, she emerges as a master manipulator who bullies people into doing her will. One of the major questions throughout is why Marlene is in favour of clemency for her daughter’s killer when she spoke in favour of capital punishment at Noa’s sentencing hearing. Does she have a hidden agenda? There are several possible explanations for her behaviour (i.e. learning the truth of what happened when Sarah was killed, alleviating her guilt in her daughter’s fate or in Noa’s death sentence), but, again, there is no real clarification of motivation.
The book examines guilt. Noa mentions at the beginning that she is guilty of shooting Sarah: “I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.” Although she does not contest her guilt, there is a suggestion that there are degrees of guilt. In one conversation with Oliver, Noa says, “’Everyone’s got something [to feel guilty about].’” And there is certainly the suggestion that others may bear some responsibility in what happened to Sarah and that she may not be the only victim.
Certainly, the reader is left to question the appropriateness of Noa’s punishment. The author uses Noa as a mouthpiece to express her opinion on capital punishment. Noa discusses the inequality of the law and judicial system: “The law has created a protected class of individuals. People who, on the basis of their age or status, are more valuable to society. If they are killed . . . the party responsible must die. . . . A nation that prides itself on equality treats its victims ever so inequitably in ritual. . . . Some states have gone so far as to codify capital murder, applying the sentence of death somewhat less haphazardly. . . Aggravating factors, they call it. Like murder can be any more inflamed than, well, what murder already is.”
At one point Noa accuses Oliver of “linguistic foreplay,” an apt phrase for that of which the author is occasionally guilty. At times there are awkward metaphors which jar: “My hands were cuffed, facing each other like confused children outside the principal’s office” and “My eyes pickpocketed the room” and “[Perfecting the art of the guilt trip] is isolating, like a termite scuffling up your innards” and “even his voice was typecast to match his hairstyle and choice of wardrobe: docile as a prostrated ocean” and “His moans lubricated the phone lines like a sexually transmitted disease. Whirls of tornadic subjugation seeped through the little holes of the telephone receiver” and “[The sun’s] talons skewering the clouds beneath. That elongated stretch through the clouds; that beam downward, pointing like a strict schoolteacher” and” [The clumsy excuses of unwilling jurors are] melodious sacraments to my dissonant entr’acte.” Such affected prose does not work.
Despite its occasional florid, overwrought style, the book is sufficiently entertaining and does provide food for thought. As a companion piece, I would recommend Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, another debut novel which also features a woman awaiting her execution.
Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
This is a fictionalized account of the final months in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. It is 1829 in northwestern Iceland; Agnes is placed in the custody of a farmer in the months leading up to her execution. As she awaits her end, she helps with the farm chores and comes to know the family who are her custodians. She also meets with a clergyman, Thorvadur “Tóti” Jónsson, who is to serve as her spiritual guide but who becomes her confidant; it is to him that she relates much of the story of her “miserable, loveless life” (211).
Agnes emerges as a fully realized character. There is a great deal of sympathy for her since her life was nothing but “a dull-eyed cycle of work . . . nothing but chores, chores, chores . . . the stifling ordinariness of existence” (210). There is also much to admire about her: intelligence and compassion. She even shows compassion towards a woman who spreads gossip about her. She is not perfect, however. Because her life was circumscribed by isolation, loneliness and abandonment, she naively fell in love with a man who paid her some attention: “For the first time in my life, someone saw me, and I loved him because he made me feel I was enough” (210). And she was certainly slow in realizing the truth about her relationship with this man.
One of the themes is that truth is not simple and straightforward, but open to interpretation. Agnes herself claims that there is “’No such thing as truth’” (105) because different people think different things are important, and for her, “There is only ever a sense that what is real to me is not real to others” (106). Agnes tells Tóti “’All my life people have thought I was too clever. . . .If I was young and simple-minded, do you think everyone would be pointing the finger at me’” (126). She believes she is not believed because, “’how other people think of you determines who you are. . . . People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down’” (104).
Agnes tells Tóti her version of the crime, but it does not tally with what the officials believe happened. Does she tell him the truth or is the District Commissioner correct when he says, “’I do not doubt that she has manufactured a life story in such a way so as to prick your sympathy’” (162)? Does she choose a “young and inexperienced” churchman believing that she can manipulate him into appealing her death sentence? Certainly her thought that, “I will have to think of what to say to him” (97) could suggest forethought and planning.
There is no doubt that being an audience “to her life’s lonely narrative” (158) influences the listeners. At the beginning everyone is reluctant to have anything to do with Agnes; Lauga, the younger daughter, is openly hostile. Margrét fears for her family’s safety with a murderess in the house, and Jón worries about the influence Agnes might have on his daughters. Their attitudes change gradually. Margrét, who initially speaks of Agnes as a murderess and a criminal, later tells Agnes, “’No one is all bad’” (259) and “’You are not a monster’” (307). Margrét realizes that her relationship with Agnes has become “more natural and untroubled” but what is also interesting is that “Margrét worried at this” (192).
Tóti’s reaction to Agnes is also interesting. Agnes tells him that they had met years previously when he had helped her ford a river, yet he “couldn’t remember meeting a young woman” (78). Later, however, he “thought again of their first meeting . . . a dark-haired woman preparing to cross the current . . . Her hair had been damp against her forehead and neck from walking. . . . Then, the warmth of her body against his chest as they forded the foamy waters on his mare. The smell of sweat and wild grassing issuing from the back of her neck” (200). Does he really remember this first meeting?
The Icelandic setting is almost another character in the narrative. The descriptions of the harsh climate, the increasing darkness as winter looms, and the barren landscape certainly reflect Agnes’ feelings of loneliness. There is also no doubt that such an environment can have an influence on people’s actions. At one point, Margrét says, “’It’s hard to be alone in winter’’’ (260). As winter advances so do the reader’s feelings of dread about what will happen to Agnes.
It is evident that the author did considerable research and she gives a vivid picture of rural life in Iceland in the early 19th century. I was not aware of the high level of literacy amongst Icelanders as far back as that time period. The inclusion of historical documents provides some facts about the case and stylistic contrast to Agnes’ interior monologues.
There is much to like about this book. It is not perfect because some of the minor characters, especially District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, are stereotypes, but it does have much to recommend it: suspense, a great mystery, a wonderfully atmospheric setting, and interesting character development.