Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness | Review

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki was originally published in September 2021 and has just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022. It’s a complex tale of loss, growing up, mental health and our relationship with things.

Books are at the heart of the novel as Benny Oh, the fourteen year-old who has just lost his father, seeks refuge in the library from his mother and her hoarding problem. In the wake of his father’s death, Benny starts to hear voices and sounds from objects. In seeking silence in his local library, he finds his own book which teaches him to listen to what truly matters.

The American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker and zen Buddhist priest. She is also the author of four novels and teaches creative writing at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Ozeki is not unknown for her writing, her novel A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker prize and she is the Grace Jarcho Ross 1922 Professor of Humanities.

It is no surprise then, that someone so accomplished in her field could pull off such a complex and intriguing narrative which covers many hard hitting topics in its 550 pages. I spent the past month understanding and digesting the lengthy tale, which as M John Harrison stated in his review, is postmodern in its influence and is ‘carefully celebrating difference, not patronising dysfunction.’

By no means is this an easy read; it makes you think carefully and allows you to process one of the hardest things to understand. Grief is never an easy journey, so why would a novel centred around this be the same?

The novel is not purely narrated by Benny, his mother Annabelle and his book also has a voice in this story. You also hear from the author of Tidy Magic who is dealing with her own grief and the change that consequently happens after. A clever move from Ozeki as it allows the reader to understand the implications of grief and where Benny sits not only within his head but in the world. As you can imagine, the structure of the novel has an important role to play as the font and layout fluctuates within. You see chapter exerts from Tidy Magic, emails, different points of view and a myriad of opinions and inner monologues. Within the story Ozeki is commenting on how much we consume in terms of writing, whether that is in a traditional format or not, the construction of ones story is all consuming and found in all aspects of our lives.

That’s the thing about words. They want to be out in the world.

The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki, p. 400

This novel was one that sat uncomfortably with me for a while, it’s hard to properly grasp where I sit with it because truly, I don’t think I understand it in its fullest form. The structure, content and implications of the novel are ones that I have grappled with continuously and it meant when reading it, I had to leave it for days, sometimes weeks before picking it up again. That’s not to say I don’t think its a good book, I just think your own definition of it will be dependant on what you’re reading it for and what you like in a novel.

This is a book that would sit in a certain place for its inferred meaning, its form and its act of genius but for something much more than that, or in this case less, I cannot prescribe it to a place in my top 20 books for example because in every instance it is too much for me. Bear in mind I have just come out of a four year English lit degree, the novel that was going to get me back into reading was not this one. In fact, the time in which I spent reading this felt like an eternity.

Now a week after finishing it, I can now reflect on the experience and understand that the book was a lot more than I expected and in itself was a piece of art. And like all art, it is subjective.

As you probably could have gathered, I don’t think I would call this an enjoyable experience. Benny is a child who is acting out and is downright uncomfortable with his mothers habits. His mother, Annabelle, is infuriating to the reader as she is unable to understand her son or herself. Something which on reflection looks like a form of depression as she is unable to get out of her situation, both mentally and physically. Benny is also misunderstood by his peers, his school, his doctors and psychiatrists. Benny and Annabelle’s lives are both mentally and physically full. In that way the novel mirrors this experience; as a reader you are drowning in information and emotion.

In terms of the relationships in the novel, I think the The Book of Form and Emptiness is extremely important in showcasing the imbalance that can happen between a parent and child after loss and how much the child needs listened to. Ozeki has clearly done her research when it comes to mental health and showcases misunderstanding, guilt and embarrassment as key features of not being able to openly express pain, confusion and ones true self.

Not only does the novel have a complex relationship with emotions, it comments on art, writing and the world around us. There was a particular emphasis on commodification, capitalism, neoliberalism and materialism and how we are often told that ‘capitalism can fix you’ (p. 365). Likewise, Ozeki dedicated her book to the ‘voice hearers, the artists, and the mad activists, whose courageous accounts, both written and recounted, have expanded my understanding and affirmed my experience.’ (Acknowledgements). It has been well documented in the past how many artists have dealt with ‘issues’ that are less understood or accepted. Ozeki consulted many professionals on the matter and in that sense the novel does far more than just meets the eye, its about giving understanding to the most misunderstood; just because we cannot understand what is going on behind the surface of a human being, does not always mean they are incapable or down right mad.

So yes, this novel is complicated and full of themes that are not easy to digest. It is definitely not something you sit and read in one sitting or can drift in and out of but it is a novel that makes you think, that will keep you on your toes and will most likely stick with you after you finish it.

Have you read The Book of Form and Emptiness? If you have let me know what you think! And if not, are you interested in giving it a go?

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