After Oda Sotatsu loses a bet, his forfeit is his signature. Scrolling his name at the bottom of a mysterious piece of paper, he is unaware that he has just confessed to the abduction and murder of several missing people from the small Japanese province of Narito. Once arrested, something forces Oda to remain silent. We are never sure exactly what, although honour, love, and fear are all hinted at. Despite having nothing to do with the disappearances, Oda will remain voiceless throughout his trial and execution.
When Jesse Ball, who appears as himself in the novel, hears about the story of Oda, it strikes a chord with a situation in his own past. One day the love of his life, and the mother of his child, fell silent. In the middle of their life together she simply stopped speaking and everything changed. With this theme of silence linking the two stories, Ball heads to Japan to see if he can determine what causes a person to just give up speech, regardless of what losses this might cause them.
Through interviews with family, friends, prison guards, and various others, Ball begins to piece together the story of Oda Sotatsu. What he eventually finds is that this is not just a tale of one man’s decision to choose silence over life, but also a story of justice, truth, and redemption.
Beginning with the assertion that this is a work of fiction partially based on fact, Silence Once Begun blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Which parts of it are true, and which are false? It seems like such a tragic story that we would have heard about it if it was all true, so maybe only the part about his silent wife has any place in reality. Whatever the case, this trick of mixing fact and fiction has often been used to add extra intrigue and that is the main thing it achieves here. Although, in all honesty, it often works as much as a distraction.
Because what we have here is a original, suspenseful, and haunting story that is somewhat dampened by the way it’s told. Repetitive interviews and constant interruptions from the author take away from a story that would have held its own without all this trickery. It feels like messing about with a narrative for the sake of messing about, rather than to bring anything extra to the work. It still intrigues and disturbs, but the methods make it hard to delve below the surface.
Any Cop?: It is, but it promised something more. There’s definitely a story worth reading here, but don’t be surprised if you’re frustrated by the way it’s told.