EL Konigsburg’s Silent to the Bone is the third book I’ve read recently involving a character who has withdrawn from the spoken world. I’m fascinated by the idea of voicelessness, particularly as a form of protest: it’s 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. Branwell’s 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 multifaceted–there are shades of PTSD and certainly, as we learn later, of acute shame here–his voicelessness appears to be one of protest, and we see that there is more to circumstances surrounding little Nikki’s injuries than might be imagined.
What follows is framed as a whodunnit, with Branwell’s 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 cues–namely 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. What’s 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, Branwell’s father asks his opinion of her, and Branwell responds: “half sister”. It’s a response that might appear callous and uncaring, but it’s 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 Nikki’s 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 communication–and 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 Branwell’s 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. There’s Connor’s decision to remain silent around “the Ancestors”, Branwell’s incredibly rude and prejudiced grandparents: “there was an awful lot unsaid when you were around the Ancestors,” he thinks. We also see Connor’s awkwardness when around Vivian, Nikki’s babysitter, a young woman who as an adult is “beyond” Connor’s communicative realm. Missed telephone calls, faxes, and other methods of one-way or non-reciprocal communication all abound.
Perhaps most movingly there’s Margaret, Connor’s half-sister and Branwell’s erstwhile babysitter. Margaret is used to show the complexities of communication and how it’s not always a two-way, equal affair: although she’s 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 it’s 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 it’s one that shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a “whodunnit”–if you deem it so you’ve surely missed what the book, through a careful language of symbolism much like Branwell’s, is trying to convey. It’s a meditation on communication, relationships, and the astonishing power of our voices…and the choices we make in using them.
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Other books by EL Konigsburg: