Highlights in the Charts
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
Review by Arabella Petts
Ansel Packer is on death row, scheduled to die in twelve hours. But this is not his story. As the hour of his death approaches, three women help to uncover the history of a tragedy. His mother, seventeen-year-old Lavender, is pushed to desperation. His sister-in-law, Hazel, watches helplessly as their relationship threatens to devour them all. Saffy, the detective on a mission to catch him and potentially the person that knows him better than anyone, is devoted to bringing criminals to justice. A suspenseful and empathetic story, Notes on an Execution presents a raw portrait of womanhood whilst simultaneously unravelling the trope of the male serial killer.
Even though I’m not usually a fan of thrillers, there was something about this novel that called to me. I found it so fast-paced and engaging that I devoured it in two days. Notes on an Execution is like nothing I’ve read before; it brings an entirely new narrative to the male serial killer story, subverting the trope entirely.
Living in a society that is so obsessed with true crime, our minds are accustomed to hearing about violent crimes and there is little most people are shocked by. It was only because of this book, which points the lens on the victims of violent crimes at the hands of men, that I even realised how little focus goes to them in real life. Everyone forgets about them and their stories eventually become irrelevant. I’m sure most true crime ‘fans’ can reel off facts about Ted Bundy, but how much do we know about the people whose lives they took?
In pushing women to the forefront of a narrative that too often overlooks them, Notes on an Execution makes us question everything we think we know about violence. It quickly rose in the bestsellers charts and even grabbed the spot of Waterstones’ ‘Thriller of the Month’ for January 2023, and rightfully so. This is a highly character-driven book, but it still manages to have a compelling and thought-provoking plot, giving me everything I needed to push this book up to one of my best reads of the year, even though we’re only two months in.
In a world that creates thousands of documentaries, podcasts and dramas about notorious male murderers, we need to take a step back and question why the focus is always on them. What about the women, the children, that had so much to show to the world? Let’s focus on telling their stories instead.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Review by Jenna Tomlinson
The title A Little Life could lead you to incorrectly believe that Yanagihara’s novel recounts an ordinary tale, the passing of something insignificant and unremarkable. But it is far more than that. Charting the lives of four friends: Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm, Yanagihara’s sweeping tome explains the intricacies of friendships, the compelling relationships that weave through a lifetime and the earth-shattering ways in which we can come to depend on others.
Jude is guarded, sharing little of his life and less of his past even with his closest friends. We know Jude is troubled by something, but it isn't until deeper into the novel that we find out exactly what happened to leave him scarred, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. Yanagihara’s depictions of Jude's physical disability and his emotions surrounding this – his acknowledgement of needing help bristling against his determination to be independent and be seen as the same as his friends – is perhaps the best depiction of disability I've seen in a novel. As a disabled person myself, the care Yanagihara took to create the nuances and complexities of this were astounding.
I won't tell you it's an easy read. If the size alone isn't enough to daunt you (I eventually had to switch to an ebook version, as the paperback was too much for my arthritic hands to juggle), then the myriad of trigger warnings may create a barrier for you. The book discusses sexual assault, rape, self-harm, suicide, domestic abuse, paedophilia and mental health, amongst its triggering subjects. But I will say that reading it will be worth your while. The journey the foursome take, weaving in relationships and experiences along the way, is as fulfilling as it is difficult. Returning the novel to my bookshelf left me feeling like I was mourning the loss of old friends.
The book has recently been reworked as a play, which is due to begin its run in March and stars a stellar cast. James Norton, who will play Jude, described in an interview that this is “a book you have a relationship with,” and I would certainly agree with this. I found myself laughing along with the friends as well as sobbing through sections, and I felt physically exhausted by the time I'd finished the novel. However, my immediate response was one of fervour – I couldn't wait to share it with my friends and I wished I could read it again for the first time.