The timing is horrifyingly surreal: capital punishment emerged as a major topic this week, from the tragically innocent, to the mistreated guilty – and somehow, unrelatedly, I managed to choose this title. Once begun, I couldn’t stop until the final page.
“In this world, you are either good or evil,” Elizabeth L. Silver‘s powerhouse debut opens (with the chill factor markedly heightened by Rebecca Lowman who narrates with unrelenting control). “The gray middle ground, that mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides, is really only a temporary annex, like a gestation or purgatory,” explains Noa P. Singleton, Silver’s unflinching protagonist. “[Y]ou must choose one way of life or the other. … For me, it happened on January 1, 2003.”
At 35, Noa is sitting on death row in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women. Before her 10-year incarceration, she was the smart-girl jock who ran varsity track and graduated salutatorian, then studied biochemistry and engineering at UPenn. She waitressed, substitute taught, tutored, and was a lab research assistant – until she became a murderer. During her five-day trial, she didn’t defend herself: “I know I did it.”
Six months before “X-day” – as in execution – Noa receives two unexpected visitors: Marlene Dixon, a high-power attorney who is also the mother of Noa’s victim, and Oliver Stansted, a newly-minted young associate from Marlene’s office. Marlene has recently started a nonprofit organization, MAD: Mothers Against Death. After an agonizing decade of suffering the loss of her daughter, Marlene claims she no longer wants to witness another death; shockingly, she announces her intention to have Noa’s capital punishment commuted to a less terminal incarceration. All she asks for in return from Noa is to find out what really happened to her pregnant daughter that fateful 2003 New Year’s Day.
During those months that Oliver and Marlene work on Noa’s appeal, Noa begins to write the story she never told anyone. She recalls her childhood with a single mother who was better at marrying and discarding husbands than caring for her daughter. She remembers her closest childhood friend Persephone, and her first high school lover Andy. She recalls her estranged father’s jarring return into her life. And finally, she replays that fateful final day in Sarah Dixon’s stuffy apartment.
The revelations come fast and furious, plunging readers into that “gray middle ground,” making impossible any clarity between so-called good and evil. From the shattering secrets held in Noa’s name to Marlene’s crumbling façade as the perfect grieving mother to Oliver’s inexplicable devotion to Noa’s case, lawyer-turned-newbie-author Silver pulls off a superbly calculated novel about naive misjudgment, desperate consequences, and impossible justice.