There’s no mystery at the heart of “Notes on an Execution,” Danya Kukafka’s poetic and mesmerizing second novel (William Morrow, 320 pp., ★★★★ out of four, out Tuesday).
Serial killer Ansel Packer is on death row for four murders we know he committed. When we meet him, he’s ticking down the last 12 hours of his life, hoping in equal measure for a reprieve from the state or a fantastic escape – neither seems like a realistic possibility – while also examining the choices he made that brought him to his ultimate fate: “There must have been a time…[a] time before you were like this.”
The truth is sobering: There isn’t a time. Packer has always been the man we meet. As a child, he tortured animals, flayed them and displayed them. He was the kind of kid we know all too well in reality and fiction, the kind who ends up recognizable by a single name, like Dahmer, or by a horrific nickname, like the Night Stalker. Our desire to know more about these men – always men – has fueled our entertainment for far too long, but principally since the 1980s, when Thomas Harris’ depiction of Hannibal Lecter in “Red Dragon” and then, more notably, in “The Silence of the Lambs,” helped launch a macabre genre that became more prurient and exploitative of women with each passing year. Most serial killers are not charming and erudite with fascinating motivations. Most have no motivation at all. There rarely is a why. It’s that absence that is so hard for us to reckon with.
It’s here that Kukafka makes her first – and best – decision: She focuses the novel’s dramatic energy not on Packer but on the women left in the ripple of his actions. These are not the victims of Packer’s crimes in a direct way, but rather the women who live in the wake of his existence. His mother, Lavender. His ex-wife’s twin sister, Hazel. Saffron, a young woman who lived with Packer in a foster home and later, as a detective, becomes obsessed by him. Their stories frame the murders that put Ansel away, but their stories are also about their own narrow escapes.
Each woman is ruled by the consequences of her actions, none more so than Lavender. Pregnant at 17 and imprisoned in her own home by Ansel’s father shortly thereafter, her eventual flight from her abusive husband results in Ansel and his infant brother being left behind to fend for themselves. It’s a choice that surely saves Lavender’s life … and may have saved Ansel’s, too. But for what end? To birth a serial killer?
It’s an impossible weight for a mother to imagine, but Kukafka handles it with grace and empathy and terrible, enduring beauty: “Lavender knew, then, that the world was a forgiving place. That every horror she had lived or caused could be balanced with such gutting kindness. It would be a tragedy, she thought – inhumane – if we were defined only by the things we left behind.”
And that’s true. Lavender is not defined by the past. None of the characters are. They are haunted by it.
Hazel and Saffron face equally chilling decisions, if that’s imaginable, and in each case Kukafka frames their conclusions with honesty and an eye toward their own agency. They must live, somehow. In that way, “Notes on an Execution” is reminiscent of Ivy Pochoda’s excellent “These Women,” both novels sharing a victim-forward narrative that is a relief to read after years of serial killer hagiography. It’s also no less thrilling.
“Notes on an Execution” is a career-defining novel – powerful, important, intensely human, and filled with a unique examination of tragedy, one where the reader is left with a curious emotion: hope.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Danya Kukafka’s latest is a different kind of serial killer story