Title: The Book of Form and Emptiness
Author: Ruth Ozeki
Publisher: Canongate Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
All I am going to say is this, if you haven’t Ruth Ozeki, now is the time and no better book to start with than this one. The Book of Form and Emptiness has to be one of my top 10 favourites of the year. It shines, it dazzles, it makes you believe in the not so believable aspects of life and living, but above all – the writing is splendid. It has the touch of lightness to it, without it being it. Ruth Ozeki has done it again and deserves two rounds of applause.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is about a boy named Benny Oh whose father Kenji, a Korean American jazz musician is run over by a chicken truck in an alley behind their house. And this is where the story begins. A story of grief, loss, even humour to some extent, hope, and how we redeem ourselves from the guilt we hold inside. Soon after, Benny starts hearing voices from inside everything. From his dead father’s clarinet to objects around the house to the lettuce in the fridge to furniture to everything in sight – each clamouring for their own attention and space. They all tell Benny their stories – of pain, of laughter, of histories of abuse and how they were handled.
Things are going downhill for his mother Anabelle as well. Benny and she constantly fight, as she refuses to let go of things and hoards more and more, and he cannot help but want to get rid of things as they speak and speak and speak. In all of this, Ozeki speaks of complex neurodivergent subjectivity in some form, touches on Benny’s journey into the schizoaffective, leading him to one of the quietest spots – the library. Even though books also speak with him, especially one specific book. At the library, he finds love and philosophy in two very different people – one a street artist, and the other a homeless philosopher-poet.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is about everything and nothing at all. It is about all of it – rolled into one – about space junk, about life on the margins, toxic masculinity, of Zen Buddhism, bad weather, of coping mechanisms, and above all about how humans come together and find love in most unexpected places.
Ozeki’s writing is magnificent. Almost like a painting or a movie. Her writing is constantly in motion and that makes the reader want to keep pace or just lay languidly without turning the page. The writing gives you the comfort and luxury to do that. The book is also about books to a large extent – of how books save us and what role they play in our lives. Ozeki writes carefully about mental health and trauma, with most empathy and grace. Ozeki’s world is surreal, it is haunting, it is not perfect, and definitely not absolute. It is messy, jagged, demands attention, and perhaps talks about things that truly matter or should matter to human beings, given our small lives.