Is it possible not only to forgive but to befriend the person who murdered someone you love? In The Crying Tree, an absorbing and deeply melancholy novel by journalist Naseem Rakha, a mother does what might seem unbearable to most: she forgives the man who is on death row for brutally killing her 15-year-old son, then allows a friendship of sorts to develop, all through a series of letters.

But it’s a long road to that state of forgiveness for Irene Stanley, who spends years in a furious, depressive haze after her son, Shep, is shot in their Oregon home during an apparent robbery. From the day 19-year-old Daniel Robbin is arrested for Shep’s murder, Irene lives for the time when he is executed—until she finally lets go of her rage in order to save herself.

The Crying Tree is largely Irene’s story, but the tale is also told through the eyes of Mason Tab, the Oregon State Penitentiary superintendent who is reluctantly in charge of Robbins’ execution; Irene’s husband, Nate; her daughter, Bliss; and Daniel himself. The book opens 19 years after Shep’s murder, then goes back and forth through time, allowing the story to unfold in a non-linear fashion.  

There are some twists and turns along the way: while Irene keeps her almost eight-year correspondence with Daniel a secret, she has no idea that both Daniel and her husband are harboring a stunning secret of their own about the day of the murder—one that will change everything once it is revealed. Many readers will likely figure  out at least part of this secret before the big revelation, as many signs point to it. While this blunts the impact a bit, it still adds an intriguing layer to a story that appears straightforward at first glance.

Rakha knows her subject well; she covered an execution for public radio and also did a series of interviews with parents of murdered children. Delving into the controversial subjects of capital punishment, forbidden relationships and forgiveness for horrific acts, her debut novel seems designed to inspire heated debate in book clubs. 

Rebecca Stropoli writes from Brooklyn, New York.

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