Unconventional but absorbing read

Every picture tells a story: Amid the bones of a macrocarpa tree lies a ball that a 92-year-old...
Every picture tells a story: Amid the bones of a macrocarpa tree lies a ball that a 92-year-old man rediscovers when he returns to the house where he lived as a child
The Narito disappearances: eight people, older men and women, disappear from their homes in the villages surrounding Sakai, Japan, 1977. Their houses are undisturbed, left as if they simply walked out. Only a playing card, nailed to each person's door, suggests that these disappearances are linked and provides an impenetrable clue.

In another part of the district, two men, Oda Sotatsu and Sato Kakuzo meet in a bar. Kakuzo wagers Sotatsu; Sotatsu loses. The next day a woman, Jito Joo, delivers a confession signed by Sotatsu to the police. Sotatsu is hauled in for interrogation, but refuses to speak.

Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun ostensibly begins as a murder mystery. Written in a pseudo-investigative style, with transcripts of Sotatsu's interrogations and interviews with Sotatsu's family members and jailers, Ball seeks to unravel the truth behind the silence. What led a quiet man, an import/export officer of a thread factory, to confess to the disappearances yet refuse to divulge any further information (including their whereabouts), to the detriment of his case? What was said between Sotatsu and Kakuzo? Why does Joo visit Sotatsu daily?

Yet it quickly becomes apparent that the line between truth and artifice is indistinct at best. The opening statement, ''the following work of fiction is partially based on fact,'' immediately brings a sense of uncertainty to the story, as the reader struggles to differentiate fact from fiction. We soon realise that in Jesse Ball's search for the truth, what we uncover is not the true story of Sotatsu, but Sotatsu's reflection in the minds of those who knew him, distorted by their own prejudices and partialities. What begins as a mystery is soon revealed as a tale of tragedy. And maybe of love.

Silence Once Begun asks more questions than it answers. It is a hall of mirrors, telling the truth through its reflection, ever elusive. Written in a Kafka-esque style, it cleverly evokes a sense of unease and uncertainty; the series of uncaptioned images and the use of white space skilfully conjures a sense of that which must have been experienced by Sotatsu's jailers, family and the public; the challenge of finding meaning in the absence of words.

While it's unconventional style means it may not be for everyone, Silence Once Begun is an absorbing read, engaging the reader through the shifting sands of relationships and ''the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable''.

- Maria van't Klooster is an avid Dunedin reader.

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