Danya Kukafka’s Last is a Different Kind of Serial Killer Story
There is no mystery at the heart of “Notes on an Execution”, the poetic and haunting second novel by Danya Kukafka (William Morrow, 320 pp., ★★★★ of four, Tuesday).
Serial killer Ansel Packer is on death row for four murders he is known to have committed. When we meet him, he is reviewing the last 12 hours of his life, hoping in equal measure for a reprieve from the state or a fantasy escape – neither seems like a realistic possibility – while examining the choices he made that led to his ultimate destiny: “There must have been a time…[a] time before you are like this.
The truth is sobering: there is no time. Packer has always been the man we meet. As a child, he tortured animals, skinned them and exhibited them. He was the kind of kid we know all too well in fact and fiction, the kind that ends up being recognizable by a single name, like Dahmer, or by a gruesome nickname, like the Night Stalker. Our desire to learn more about these men – always men – has fueled our entertainment for far too long, but mainly since the 1980s, when Thomas Harris portrayed Hannibal Lecter in ‘Red Dragon’ and then, more specifically, in ‘The Silence”. of the Lambs,” helped launch a macabre genre that grew more lustful and exploitative of women with each passing year. Most serial killers aren’t charming and erudite with compelling motivations. Most have no motivation. There is rarely a why. It is this absence with which we find it so difficult to reckon.
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It is here that Kukafka makes her first – and best – decision: she focuses the novel’s dramatic energy not on Packer but on the women left behind in the ripple of his actions. They are not the direct victims of Packer’s crimes, but rather the women who live in the wake of his existence. His mother, Lavender. The twin sister of his ex-wife, Hazel. Safran, a young woman who lived with Packer in foster care and later as a detective, becomes obsessed with him. Their stories frame the murders that sidelined Ansel, but their stories also tell of their own narrow escapes.
Every woman is ruled by the consequences of her actions, no more so than Lavender. Pregnant at 17 and imprisoned in her own home by Ansel’s father soon after, her eventual flight from her abusive husband leaves Ansel and her younger brother on their own. It’s a choice that surely saves Lavender’s life… and perhaps saved Ansel’s as well. But for what purpose? Bringing forth a serial killer?
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It’s an unimaginable burden for a mother, but Kukafka handles it with grace and empathy and with terrible, enduring beauty: “Lavender knew then that the world was a forgiving place. That every horror she had experienced or caused could be outweighed by such kindness. It would be a tragedy, she thought – inhuman – 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 any, and in each case, Kukafka formulates their conclusions with honesty and an eye for their own agency. They have to live, somehow. In this way, “Notes on an Execution” is reminiscent of Ivy Pochoda’s excellent “These Women,” with both novels sharing an avant-garde victim narrative that’s a relief to read after years of serial killer hagiography. . It’s no less exciting either.
“Notes on an Execution” is a career-defining novel – powerful, important, intensely human, and filled with a unique examination of tragedy, where the reader is left with a curious emotion: hope.