What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief and questioning? In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki explores how we find meaning in the world and why each of our voices matter.
As the novel opens, young Benny Oh’s father dies suddenly and violently. Benny’s loss and confusion is palpable, made all the more difficult by the voices he begins to hear emanating from all the objects around him. These voices are a burden, weighing Benny down with the emotional resonance of all things, from a silver spoon to a pair of scissors. He doesn’t know what to do with this information, and neither do the people around him.
As Benny follows these voices and begins to sneak out of school, his mother, Annabelle, struggles to understand her child, even as she grieves and hoards. Annabelle’s job is to monitor the news, and her home bursts with plastic bags full of old newspapers and CDs, as well as her own piles of clothes in need of folding, unfinished craft projects and so much more. Ozeki’s brilliance is to never let Annabelle’s pile overwhelm the reader, offering glimpses of it only through Annabelle’s and Benny’s eyes, who in their grief often have trouble registering the tangible reality around them.
As Benny and Annabelle try to find ways to be in and make sense of the world, questions of communication, loss and connection emerge. Ozeki’s prose is magnetic as she draws readers along, teasing out an ethereal and haunting quality through an additional narrator: that of a sentient Book, who speaks with Benny and helps to tell his story. The Book’s observations are beyond a human’s scope, with a universal objectivity blooming from a communication matrix among all books, like a mycelial network.
Benny and Annabelle are characters you’ll never stop rooting for. They’re worthy of readers’ love as Ozeki meditates on the nature of objects, compassion and everyday beauty. After reading, you’ll be eager for this book to find its way into other readers’ hands.