In the tradition of Long Bright River and The Mars Room, a gripping and atmospheric work of literary suspense that deconstructs the story of a serial killer on death row, told primarily through the eyes of the women in his life.
Ansel Packer is scheduled to die in twelve hours. He knows what he’s done, and now awaits execution, the same chilling fate he forced on those girls, years ago. But Ansel doesn’t want to die; he wants to be celebrated, understood.
Through a kaleidoscope of women—a mother, a sister, a homicide detective—we learn the story of Ansel’s life. We meet his mother, Lavender, a seventeen-year-old girl pushed to desperation; Hazel, twin sister to Ansel’s wife, inseparable since birth, forced to watch helplessly as her sister’s relationship threatens to devour them all; and finally, Saffy, the detective hot on his trail, who has devoted herself to bringing bad men to justice but struggles to see her own life clearly. As the clock ticks down, these three women sift through the choices that culminate in tragedy, exploring the rippling fissures that such destruction inevitably leaves in its wake. “The killings aren’t the main event here though. Lives aren’t defined by those few fleeting moments when Ansel stole control.”
Blending breathtaking suspense with astonishing empathy, Notes on an Execution presents a chilling portrait of womanhood as it simultaneously unravels the familiar narrative of the American serial killer, interrogating our system of justice and our cultural obsession with crime stories, asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the psyches of violent men.
Notes on an Execution is a novel about a murderer, Ansel Packer, who is 12 hours from being executed. However, the story is uniquely told by the women who have been a part of his life. While Ansel’s narration anchors the story, the aftermath of his murders and the women’s lives are truly the focus.
Danya Kufafka has masterfully written Notes on an Execution. Her lyrical prose is haunting and emotionally evocative. Similar to Elizabeth Strout, you can feel emotion thorough the way the words are written, rather than the words themselves.
Notes on an Execution is quietly provocative, exploring what it means to be human and the pain, anger, and love that goes along with it. What you take from the novel is really up to you. Kufafka has exquisitely crafted a story free from her own bias and judgement, allowing readers the space to command their own thoughts and opinions on the events and characters. In doing so, she invites self-reflection and elicits a profound empathy that challenges readers to contemplate their beliefs. Specifically, I found myself thinking a lot about the dichotomy of good and bad, how pain is treated as a measure of worthiness, and the way we treasure those we love above all others.
Having read some other reviews, it seems that some readers may have a problem finding themselves empathizing with a murderer. I would argue that Kufafka does not directly aim for readers to empathize with Ansel, rather she is sharing a full picture of someone that is villainized. Kufafka provides a narrative that differs from what the mainstream media typically offers about those who commit crimes. Instead of judgement automatically placed upon those accused of crimes, Kufafka invites you to make your own judgement or just observe. In doing so, this novel also begs readers to think about the death penalty as well as the justice, punishment, and rehabilitation our criminal justice system promises.
Moreover, Kukafka’s focus on the women in Ansel’s life runs counter to the attention typically given to serial killers. Instead, the novel notes the privileges this attention carries. True crime documentaries, podcasts, books, etc. rarely focus on the victims of crimes. What ends up happening is glorification and sensationalism of the murderer and their crimes. As Kukafka writes in her Author’s Note, “Average men become interesting when they start hurting women. Notes on an Execution was born from a desire to dissect this exhausting narrative.”
While I really loved the majority of this book, there were a few things that I thought could be improved. I wish there was more emotional depth to the women. I feel like this was lacking and as a result, I did not feel as strongly about them, their lives, or their experiences. I especially struggled with Ansel’s mother and her story. I did not have a full understanding of why she made the choices she did; it left me livid at her character and struggling to understand her motivations and love. My only other critique is that Ansel’s moment of death realization was not completely convincing. But this was a small moment.
Overall, I really enjoyed Notes on an Execution. I think I had very high expectations going into this book based upon all the buzz it has received. As a result, my expectations were not quite met. Still, I highly recommend this book to everyone.
Note: This book is not a thriller and if you start it expecting it to be one, you will likely be disappointed.
Notes on an Execution
January 25, 2022