Elizabeth L. Silver’s gripping and introspective first novel analyzes capital punishment from the intertwined viewpoints of those involved in a murder trial that took place years before the novel opens. Noa P. Singleton, now 35, has been in the Pennsylvania Institute for Women for a decade, found guilty of killing Sarah Dixon, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The mystery posed by the author is not whether Noa committed the crime, for she begins her story with: “I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why.” Instead, the book revolves around the “why”—and all the factors, past and present, that eventually led to a tragic and senseless outcome.

The main narrative is in Noa’s words—a first-person journal written in the months before her scheduled execution, which she calls X-day. She writes of her mother, who has not visited her in prison, and her non-relationship with her father—a one-night stand whom her mother calls a sperm donor, a man Noa never heard from growing up. She writes of childhood friends, and of the women who surround her on death row, whose stories she knows well. X-day is six months away, when out of the blue Noa is visited by Marlene Dixon, mother of the murder victim and a high-profile Philadelphia lawyer. Marlene claims to have had a change of heart—she no longer believes in the death penalty, and is in the process of filing a clemency petition that would reduce Noa’s sentence to life in prison. All Noa has to do is reveal why she committed the crime—something she refused to discuss during the trial, or since.

By means of chapters written in Noa’s words and letters written by Marlene Dixon to her deceased daughter, the reader gradually pieces together the puzzle of what happened the day Sarah died. It is an emotion-packed style, similar to that used by Lionel Shriver in her acclaimed novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), as the reader tries to come to grips with how much weight should be given to mitigating circumstances in determining guilt or innocence.

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