Book ReviewJulianna Thibodeaux
Daily, Before Your Eyes
Michigan State University Press
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Sister Helen Prejean, one of the country's foremost activists against the death penalty (and author of the best-selling Dead Man Walking, even better known as the film of the same name). Prejean, of course, is a nun, so her standpoint isn't that surprising - except that she comes at it in a way that appeals to secular humanists as well. To put it simplistically, killing is a barbaric, inhumane act - and doing it to address a wrong seems only to perpetuate the cycle. The higher ground is to find a way to forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.
Margaret-Love Denman's just-published novel Daily, Before Your Eyes, set in 1989, attempts to tackle the thorny issue of capital punishment, although this isn't central to the book. Instead, we're witness to the slow and painful awakening of Tory Gardner, an unlikely candidate to step into the dark world of death row and the mostly unsavory characters there - on both sides of the switch.
The novel opens with Gardner, who has led a somewhat pampered life as the wife of a successful attorney in Mississippi, having to face the sudden death of her husband. As the story unfolds, we learn that Gardner's life hasn't been so simple after all. Her husband, she learns, had been cheating on her. And Tory still has not come to terms with the death of their child. Despite such a depressing premise, Denman's finely chiseled prose propels the story along, allowing a small light of hope to keep the pages turning in response to the question, what will Tory do with such complex and competing kinds of grief?
This is where the death penalty comes in. Tory discovers an unfinished case of her husband's, one that was begun and thought to be closed years ago, of a woman on death row. Tory takes up the cause of Theresa Marie Magnarelli - "Tracy" - to atone for her own losses, as if she can make sense of both her daughter's short life by saving someone else's, and at the same time discover what went wrong in her marriage. Yes, she's using Tracy; but in the process, some unexpected things happen.
Denman carefully guides the reader to the same conclusion as Tory Gardner - that is to say, the death penalty is not the answer - but some readers may be challenged to get to this place easily. At one point we're asked to weigh the case of Tracy, who confessed to the murder of her pimp (whom, she believed, was sexually abusing her baby daughter), on equal footing with the execution of a man who raped and murdered a 3-year-old. Here we're reminded how murky this territory actually is, but Denman suggests that redemption is possible in even the worst possible circumstances.
Long after I put the book down after reading its final melancholy (but hopeful) lines, I pondered again the issue of capital punishment, the terrible "what ifs," the notion of forgiveness. We can't know ourselves fully until put to the test. And there is some pain that is worse than death.