One of the questions many of the most talked-about recently published novels has raised is whether a main character of a novel must be likable in order for readers to follow him or her through a book. From calculating Amy Dunne in Gone Girl to angry Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs, the answer seems to be a resounding no. That’s good news for Noa P. Singleton, the protagonist of Elizabeth L. Silver’s first novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. Erudite, caustic, and seemingly resigned to her terminal status, Noa is not a warm and cuddly narrator. She doesn’t even try to convince readers of her innocence. As she says on page 3, “I know I did it. The state knows I did it.…I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.”
The fictional Noa is a young, well-educated woman on death row for killing another woman and her unborn child. If this sounds like a simple case, think again. As a British lawyer named Oliver begins the process of applying for clemency for Noa, the novel takes us into her past, and we soon realize her story might be less cut-and-dried than Noa’s jury might have thought.
Still, Silver never lets Noa appeal directly to reader’s sympathies. Instead, as Noa relates her own story with acerbic candidness, readers are left to ask themselves whether they feel she should die. “Noa is tortured because of what happened,” explains Silver, “but sometimes a bad decision might not necessarily reflect a bad person…but a bad decision could put you on death row.”
Silver drew on her own experience with death row inmates in creating Noa’s character. In her late 20s, she decided to attend law school. During her last semester, she took a capital punishment class, part of which was a clinic. The class visited death row, and Silver ended up working on a clemency petition. The petition was unsuccessful, but the experience stayed with Silver.
“I remember the first time I went to death row and I spoke with an inmate,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘He’s remarkably lucid.’ And that surprised me.” Silver says she entered death row with preconceived notions of what inmates would be like, but her expectations were all wrong. “Here this person was speaking so normally and so intelligently, talking about all sorts of books that he’d read and all this history that he’d had which wasn’t the stereotypical death row inmate, whatever that is!”
Silver wanted to give her readers the same experience when encountering Noa. “I didn’t want her to be someone who we as a society might think of when we consider a death row inmate,” says Silver. “I wanted her to be smart. If we met Noa outside of prison, she would probably be someone we would know from school, or maybe from the gym. I wanted to subvert any expectations of what a death row inmate would be.”
Silver worked hard to get the details of prison life right. For example, Noa tells the reader that when visitors to death row buy an inmate a snack, a guard must “accompany them to the vending machines, take out the candy bar from the machine, place it in a brown paper bag, and deliver it to us, without their ever having placed a handprint on it.” (Noa is partial to Three Musketeers bars, which she describes rapturously: “I bit the hard chocolate…it sat flat on my tongue for a cool ten seconds, melting against my body’s heat and vanishing between the invisible taste buds of my tongue….”)
Oliver’s visits to speak with Noa, says Silver, are “somewhat reminiscent of my visits to death row: the experience of walking in, of getting the food, talking to somebody through the Plexiglas.”
But it was also important to Silver to imagine the deeper nuances of what it would feel like to be Noa. “I wanted to focus on the solitary aspect of her life and how that leads to her identity,” she says. “So it’s more metaphorical as opposed to literal. I wanted to isolate her because that’s how she’s been isolated her whole life. It’s kind of an embodiment of everything she’s experienced.”
Whether Noa is someone a reader might like isn’t something Silver worried about. “If somebody’s on death row and admits that she’s killed somebody else…that probably will separate people from her,” she admits. “It was a massive challenge. I didn’t know how I was going to do it.” But she was most concerned that Noa be someone the reader wants to follow: “I hope that ultimately people care for her.”
Most people, the writer insists, have done something unlikable in their lives. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. “That’s humanity,” Silver says. “It was most important for me to have somebody who was real.”
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of a short story collection and four novels, most recently Close Your Eyes, which was named one of Kirkus’ Best Books of 2011 and Elle’s Book of the Year.