This was suggested by one of my fellow book club members for our April read. I had not heard of this author before – this is only her second novel – but I feel sure hers is a name that we will all hear about in the future. Danya is an American and is a literary agent in her day job. She published her first novel Girl in Snow in 2017, and Notes on an Execution was published earlier this year, to great acclaim it seems, judging by everything I have been able to glean about the book since finishing it.
The novel is set in the US and covers a period of thirty or more years and moves effortlessly back and forth in time. The present day strand is narrated by Ansel Packer, a convicted murderer who is on Death Row in a Texas prison, twelve hours from his execution. He reflects on the nature of life and death and philosophises about right and wrong. He has been writing down his thoughts in what he considers to be a work of philosophy (harking back to his time in college where he majored in the subject but failed to complete his degree) and plans to leave it as his legacy. He has been having a Death Row visitor, Shawna, to whom he grants custody of his manuscript.
Interspersed with Ansel’s narrative is an account of his past. He spent his early years on a remote farm, where his violent father Johnny abused his young wife, Lavender, then only seventeen years old, virtually keeping her prisoner and well away from normal society. Ansel receives no formal schooling and is isolated from other children. When Johnny takes Lavender on a trip, leaving four year old Ansel in charge of his baby brother, Lavender escapes her husband’s clutches at a gas station and manages to call the police to tell them about the children. Ansel is taken into foster care. He is told that his baby brother died.
An account of Ansel’s time in foster care in upstate New York is given by Saffy, another of the orphaned children living in the home. Saffy has had troubles of her own – her Indian father is unknown to her, she is the result of a short relationship her mother had, and her mother was killed. Saffy eventually finds her purpose as a police officer, working her way up to detective. She is put on a case involving three murdered girls whose bodies have been found buried in the woods. Saffy knows one of the victims – it was one of the girls she grew up with in the foster home. A suspect is found, but Saffy knows the homeless man being fingered for the crime is not the real killer. She harbours a private agenda to catch the murderer, which grows into an obsession.
A further narrator is Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny. Hazel recalls her first meeting with Ansel; shortly after he and Jenny get together at college, he joins the family for the Christmas holidays. Hazel is strangely attracted to him and jealous of her sister, but there is something about Ansel she does not trust. In the middle of the night she looks out of her bedroom window and sees him burying something in the family’s back garden, an action she cannot explain, but she says nothing.
This is a book about a serial killer; we know the ending, we know that Saffy must therefore eventually get him. This book is not a whodunnit. It is part cat and mouse – the chase, how Saffy will eventually catch up with him. It is also about the women Ansel killed, it tells their stories. It is also about the mind of a killer, how this is cultivated, what part his upbringing and his being left by his mother played in that evolution. Lest we blame his mother for “abandoning” him, the author explores Lavender’s story too – she was a child herself when she was impregnated by Ansel’s abusive father and it was his violence that forced her to take the only course of action possible to save herself and her children. She will carry the burden of that action for the rest of her life.
I was reading this at about the same time as Crime and Punishment and there are some interesting parallels – the brutal murders of women, the lack of remorse shown by the killer, the philosophising on right and wrong by the person committing the crime. The two books, separated by more than 150 years, share some similar characteristics, but Kukafka, makes the victims front and centre even though Ansel is trying to make the story about himself.
This is a brilliant book. It is powerful and interesting in a way that I did not expect and even though we know how it ends, the author still manages to throw in some heart-stopping surprises. I listened to the audiobook and was riveted. The performances were excellent.