executionWithin a month of this writing, the state of Texas performed its 500th execution since 1982. That convict was the first woman executed in the United States in three years and only the thirteenth woman executed since the 1976 Supreme Court decision re-allowing capital punishment (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_executed_in_the_United_States_since_1976). This horrible little factoid is important when considering Elizabeth Silver’s novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton because that novel supposes a penal system that apparently executes women much more readily than does the one in our world. Two women are executed in the novel in quick succession by the state. There is no explanation of this discrepancy against the real world given — though we can imagine the circumstances that would allow such a rate: a hard-line Republican governor, the ass-backwards application of equal rights leading to more executions for women rather than fewer for everyone — and we just have to suspend disbelief there at the base of the novel.

The reason that such a detail is important is that it indicates the novel’s consistency with the real world, its level of realism and its ability to avoid implausibility. Implausibility is important in a didactic novel such as this one. You can’t teach well without a consistent viewpoint, and your lesson is useless if inapplicable to the real world. This novel very much has a viewpoint about the drudgery, horror and questionable ethics of capital punishment. Early in the story, convicted murderer Noa trades angry, awkward banter with a clemency attorney about the unfairness of capital punishment trials. Throughout the book, Noa’s victim’s mother cites statistics about exonerations. Noa’s impending execution is quite certainly portrayed as an institutionally driven injustice.

Unfortunately, that standpoint is undermined by the story in at least two ways. First, there’s Noa Singleton herself. That surname, as symbolic as any found in Dickens, points to Noa’s tragic flaw: she stands alone, always. Partially by circumstance (absent father, insecure mother, horrific public miscarriage), partially due to her apparent sociopathy (low and hostile affect, remorselessness in the face of death and in the memory of her crimes), she’s hardly the most sympathetic of protagonists. In the first pages of the story, Noa tells us that “[her] memories are staring to fade in here. Events slip off their shelves into the wrong year, and I’m not always sure that I’m putting them back in their proper home.” During her trial, an overreach by the prosecution leads to the judge “[instructing] the jury to ignore the last question-and-answer interchange,” but Noa notes that “they already heard it” and so bad testimony colors the interpretation of fact. Similarly, Noa’s unreliable narration colors our view of her. Chapter 16 consists of a single sentence, “Please disregard that last chapter.” That “last chapter” contains a short treatise by Noa on the absurdity of asking anyone to ignore a statement they’ve just heard. We can consider this just the author playing clever games (it is, and I hope that Ms. Silver knows that each author gets exactly one of those single-sentence chapters in their career), but we can also take at face value that Noa is willing to willfully ignore her previous actions. The latter interpretation turns out to be important, given revelations concerning Noa’s involvement in a childhood friend’s death. Noa is, in fact, an unrepentant killer and perhaps the most deserving — if anyone is — of our harshest punishment.

That punishment, however, may not have been decided upon and allowed to conclude by purely judicial action, and that is the second undermining agent of the book’s consistency. The antagonist of the novel is Noa’s victim’s mother, a character who starts the novel as a sympathetic character (grieving mother, cancer survivor, clemency supporter), but who ends up as a noirish villain who has been pulling the strings of people around Noa from the very beginning. The mother’s revelations — offered mostly through chapter-ending letters to her dead daughter but also worked out and apathetically accepted by Noa — cast a vaguely uneasy light on the appropriateness of Noa’s punishment, but where real-world capital punishment clemency comes from revisited evidence or recanted testimony or re-campaigning politicians, the urge for both punishment and clemency in this story comes from a soap opera plot.

At least two others female characters die in the course of the novel, so here’s also yet another story that hinges upon the violent deaths of women and girls. I’m not asking for a gender balance in fictional victimhood: more murdered men isn’t going to help the state of fiction, popular, literary or otherwise. What I would like to see is less reliance on violence towards women used as the catalyzing ingredient for a plot. In the comic book world this is known as “fridging” and is considered a pretty odious motivation (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Refrigerators, and while in The Execution of Noa P. Singleton the various deaths aren’t strictly there to stimulate outrage and action by the male characters (except, perhaps impotently, for do-gooder attorney Oliver Stansted), there is enough of the Nancy Grace murdered-girl story in the novel to stink just a bit.