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Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg

Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg


EL Konigsburgs'Silent to the Bone is the third book Ive read recently involving a character who has withdrawn from the spoken world. Im fascinated by the idea of voicelessness, particularly as a form of protest: its a world apart from a mere failure to speak up. A deliberate, defiant silence is a removal of oneself from the social mainstream, a renouncing of the communication norms that are so essential to getting by. Unlike a failure to speak up, something that encourages the individual in question to be passed over, their grievances unaddressed, it encourages others to rally and take action.

In'Silent to the Bone, our voiceless character is Branwell Zamborska, a teen whose voice vanishes midway through an emergency telephone call to the authorities. Branwells infant sister now lies in a hospital with injuries consistent with being shaken. Branwell himself is in a juvenile detention centre, both physically locked up, and bound in his own silence. But although the origins of his silence are ambiguous and possibly multifacetedthere are shades of PTSD and certainly, as we learn later, of acute shame herehis voicelessness appears to be one of protest, and we see that there is more to circumstances surrounding little Nikkis injuries than might be imagined.

What follows is framed as a whodunnit, with Branwells best friend Connor setting out to solve the mystery of what truly happened that night by means of interviewing those involved and attempting to draw commentary out of Branwell using an elaborate system of flash cards and facial cuesnamely blinks. Much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (which dates three years after the publication of this book)'the solution to the mystery, however, is evident within the first page of the book. The mystery is a framework, not the key narrative. Whats really being explored here is the nature of the relationships between the main characters, as well as the many ways in which silence, both protest-based silence and a fear or shame of speaking out, affect these relationships.

Branwell has long been silenced by those around him, although not necessarily in an explicit, punitive way. He appears to fall somewhere on the Autistic spectrum, and his difficulty in dealing with nuance and unspoken suggestion affects the way that he communicates with others. When his baby sister Nikki is born, Branwells father asks his opinion of her, and Branwell responds: half sister. Its a response that might appear callous and uncaring, but its also'correct, which is something Branwell cares very much about. We also see how Branwell is silenced by his grandparents, who try to keep him away from the family during the time of Nikkis birth, and by the babysitter Vivian, whose behaviour shames Branwell, a teen struggling with his newfound sexual nature, into a deeper silence again.

But Branwell is desperate to find ways to communicate and to be understood. His relationship with Connor is one that revolves around communicationand often structured, formalised language games. The two have a game called SIAS or Summarise in a Sentence where they try to sum up scenarios or events elegantly and with brevity; they create their own catch phrases and buzzwords, such as blue peter, a signal meaning ready to begin. And when Branwell is being held in detention, he and Connor begin to communicate through a system of blinks and cue cards. This last is incredibly tedious and time-consuming, and their determined, continued use of it speaks both to the friends close bond and Branwells true desire to communicate.

Silence and communication are constantly explored throughout the book, and this post would be thousands of words long if I were to document all of the instances. Theres Connors decision to remain silent around the Ancestors, Branwells incredibly rude and prejudiced grandparents: there was an awful lot unsaid when you were around the Ancestors, he thinks. We also see Connors awkwardness when around Vivian, Nikkis babysitter, a young woman who as an adult is beyond Connors communicative realm. Missed telephone calls, faxes, and other methods of one-way or non-reciprocal communication all abound.

Perhaps most movingly theres Margaret, Connors half-sister and Branwells erstwhile babysitter. Margaret is used to show the complexities of communication and how its not always a two-way, equal affair: although shes integral in acting as a sort of go-between in helping to solve the mystery and to communicate on an adult level with Vivian and the other adults in the book, she has her own communicative challenges. Her rocky relationship with her father, for example, is the result of a breakdown in communication, and its when this channel begins to open up towards the end of the book that we see a possibility for reconciliation.

Silent to the Bone is a wonderful book, and its one that shouldnt be dismissed as simply a whodunnitif you deem it so youve surely missed what the book, through a careful language of symbolism much like Branwells, is trying to convey. Its a meditation on communication, relationships, and the astonishing power of our voicesand the choices we make in using them.

Rating: star Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburgstar Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburgstar Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburgstar Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburgblankstar Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg (excellent)

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Other books by EL Konigsburg:

The View from Saturday by EL Konigsburg Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler By EL Konigsburg Review: Silent to the Bone by EL KonigsburgA Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by EL Konigsburg Review: Silent to the Bone by EL Konigsburg


  1. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of my all time favorite books. I think Ill have to see if I can get my hands on this other book by the author, which sounds just as kooky and delightful.

    • Stephanie /

      I havent read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I came across it when putting together this post, and it looks great. This one is kooky and warm and so very clever. I hope you enjoy it. :)

      • The Mixed-up Files is a lovely book with really smart characters in it. I may have to re-read it for the nostalgia. LOL