Book review: Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Something that begins as an inventive, satisfying crime story finds itself in philosophically rich territory.

Photographer: Lauren Spinelli

By Jesse Ball. Pantheon, $24.

Though it’s a work of fiction, Jesse Ball’s new novel convincingly utilizes true-crime devices. The premise: In late-1970s Japan, a man named Oda Sotatsu signed a confession claiming responsibility for the disappearances of numerous elderly citizens, then refused to speak in his own defense, despite no evidence connecting him to the crime. In Silence Once Begun, a newly divorced writer named Jesse Ball interviews figures on the case’s periphery, seeking a greater understanding of Sotatsu’s reticence.

Silence incorporates a vast array of styles: Ball’s musings, interview transcripts, other characters’ accounts of the case and even a few Sebaldian photographs. Throughout, there are many questions about both what is said and what is left unsaid; motivation, memory and reliability all come under scrutiny. Though its structure and language reflect an intellectual game play, the novel’s haunting, final paragraphs form a demonstration of Ball’s authorial thesis, applying notions about unknowability and community behavior on a grander scale. It shifts the book’s stakes: What had been a taut crime story stands revealed as something much more ominous.