cover image Silence Once Begun

Silence Once Begun

Jesse Ball. Pantheon, $23.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-307-90848-3

The enigmatic silence of a wrongfully accused suspect is at the core of the new novel from Ball (The Curfew). In 1977 Japan, Oda Sotatsu is a mild-mannered thread salesman who falls in with a couple of wild characters—the charismatic Sato Kakuzo and the beautiful Jito Joo. After losing a wager to Kakuzo, Oda signs a document claiming responsibility for a series of mysterious disappearances that have baffled authorities in the region. Later, while on trial and in prison, rather than profess his innocence or defend himself, Oda stops speaking. Years later, a journalist, also named Jesse Ball, becomes fascinated with the case and attempts to track down and interview Oda’s family and friends. Most of the novel is written as transcripts of these interviews, which layer together, Rashomon-like, to form an increasingly mysterious and conflicted portrait of Oda and his alleged crime. This methodical presentation makes for coolly suspenseful reading, but it’s soon clear there is more underlying Ball’s investigation than meets the eye. For example, when he tracks down Joo, the normally dispassionate interviewer is overcome with emotion and makes a lengthy and unexpected personal confession. Even so, the truth remains elusive until the final pages. The novel is intriguing and offers a riveting portrait of the Japanese criminal justice system (a guard’s description of the execution procedure is particularly chilling); but how readers react to it will largely depend on whether they feel some of the final twists deepen or cheapen the material. (Jan.)