I’m not sure how I came across this book or what drew me to it, I think it was someone else’s review on here.
If that’s you, thank you for bringing it to my attention.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on with Notes on an execution, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be reading it.
If you’re going to pick it up, be aware of the content in this book, after all one of the characters is a psychopathic murderer on death row, so it is not a light read.
“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”.
My worry going into this book was that the character of Ansel would be given too much of a say. That he’d be given too much time to pontificate, that his female victims would end up being footnotes in his story. I was worried I’d end up reading a redemption story full of sentimentality.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Danya Kukafka puts living women at the centre of this book, it is they who tell the story, it is women who drive the plot, they take control of Ansel’s story, and it culminates in an incredibly powerful and moving book, that is full of suspense and tragedy.
The narrative alternates between Ansel who has 12 hours to live and three women he’s encountered in his life.
Lavender, his mum who gave birth as a teenager; Saffy the detective who grew up with him in care who is determined to bring bad men to justice and Hazel, Ansel’s sister-in-law.
Each chapter takes us from his childhood up to his final day. Though it looks at how Ansel has affected each of their lives in some way, it as much about their lives too.
They’re all strong women, they’re all complicated, they each have flaws, which, makes them feel incredibly real.
I liked Hazel’s confessions about her twin sister, the jealousy was recognisable, I liked the tension between them both and seeing how that developed as they grew older and grew apart.
I liked Saffy’s dogged determination but wanted her to stop ignoring her own life. Her pursuit for justice took over everything, she became obsessive, nothing else mattered.
I loved reading about Lavender, how she goes from abused teenage mum, to commune member. How she lives with regrets and how she’s failed to recognise her trauma.
In Lavender’s early chapters I again had worries that this was going to be a cautionary tale where she was blamed for the crimes her son would go on to commit. I couldn’t be arsed with a nature versus nurture debate. Kukafka, to her credit, doesn’t entertain this lazy narrative. Instead, we follow Lavender through her life and understand her choices; she isn’t condemned because her son turns out to be killer.
Books where men murder women are ten a penny. They’re usually formulaic, tend to be police procedural, often a cat and mouse game where women and other victims are forgotten. This book was refreshingly different.
At no point are we invited to question Ansel’s motives. He wants to be seen as a great thinker; he fails in his mission. In a strange way, I pitied him, he viewed himself as a great philosopher, when in fact he was pathetic. He saw himself as a master manipulator who is in control of everyone around, when nothing could be further from the truth. He was never in control.
Kukafka’s making a statement on our culture, why we tend to mythologise serial killers. There are endless films, books and documentaries about men like Ansel. We obsess over it, Notes on an execution is a work of fiction that fights against that, it encourages society to stop our weird habit of glorifying these men in some way.
“Average men become interesting when they start hurting women. Notes on an Execution was born from a desire to dissect this exhausting narrative.” Danya Kukafka
She manages to do just that.
It’s a wonderfully written book, it’s engaging and will make you think. I know this her second novel and I’m looking forward to reading future books from this author, you should check her out too.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm