Skip to main content

The Book of Form and Emptiness


The Book of Form and Emptiness

Who doesn’t love a book in which a book is an actual character? But then again, a lot of inanimate objects come to life in Ruth Ozeki’s THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS, an odd, compassionate novel of love, loss and longing.

Benny Oh is trying to cope with the death of his dad, his inner demons and his mother’s hoarding. Annabelle worries about her son, her job and their precarious future. For a time, it seems as though Benny and Annabelle are on parallel tracks to tragedy, but an odd confluence of events --- she embraces a Marie Kondo-like self-help guru, and he befriends some neighborhood outcasts --- brings them together at just the right moment.

"Who doesn’t love a book in which a book is an actual character?... THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS [is] an odd, compassionate novel of love, loss and longing."

Much of the story revolves around young Benny’s attempts to avoid the voices that threaten to drive him mad; in fact, he spends time in a psychiatric ward because of them. His Book is one of the most insistent of them. “It gets inside my head,” says Benny. “It’s reading my mind.” The Book’s matter-of-fact response is that “every boy has a book in him, Benny, but not every boy can hear it when it speaks.”

In addition to its magical realism --- the philosophizing book is one of many examples --- and the real suffering that mother and son endure, this hefty (500-page) novel unexpectedly features flashes of humor and instances of humanity in the unlikeliest characters. One of the outcasts says to Benny, “You are who you are, Benny Oh. Just don’t let anyone tell you that’s a problem.” When Annabelle is threatened with eviction because of her hoarding, the local librarian hires another outcast to help find a new home for some of her “collectibles.” Meanwhile, Benny’s drug-addled friend, Alice, agrees to visit him in the hospital in order to prove to the doctors that she, at least, is not a figment of his imagination.

Some will find this tale too far-fetched or simply too long. However, those who stick with it will be rewarded by a denouement that reveals the book’s underlying themes of trust and inner faith, and makes the reader eager to embrace them.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on October 8, 2021

The Book of Form and Emptiness
by Ruth Ozeki

  • Publication Date: June 14, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399563660
  • ISBN-13: 9780399563669