Ruth Ozeki’s 5th novel, and a book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on.
Synopsis – amazon.com
One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house – a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.
At first Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, he falls in love with a mesmerising street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.
And he meets his very own Book – a talking thing – who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.
The Book of Form and Emptiness blends unforgettable characters, riveting plot and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions. This is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but on finishing the book, I experienced a lingering dis-satisfaction.
I enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s novels, and have no quarrel with her writing, or the difficult story line she pursued: grief, mental illness, coming of age (always tricky), homelessness; or the fact that she used a familiar trope, that of the energetic Zen nun who revives a decaying Zen temple and serves a dying master.
If the above sounds grim, be assured the book is not unremitting doom and gloom, there are vivid characters peopling the story, for example, the *Aleph aka Alice, who acts almost as a guardian angel over Benny as he navigates the darker side of the city, and the night-time mysteries of the Public Library
And Benny’s hapless mother Annabelle, who unconsciously succumbs to hoarding because she’s overwhelmed by grief and circumstance. I’ve watched, with horror, TV programmes on hoarders, but this is the first time I’ve encountered the illness in fiction. Ruth Ozeki is not afraid to tackle difficult topics of modern life.
A sub-theme of the story is that of the urban homeless, many of whom use the Library as a Daycare Centre – very necessary in the harsh North American winters. For instance, there’s Slavoj, the drunken philosopher poet, obsessed with Walter Benjamin. He ‘s an influential figure in Benny’s Life, as is the enigmatic Aleph.
The novel is a long, meaty read and I think perhaps it was the abrupt ending that did not sit well with me after such a long, and detailed build-up. This said, don’t be put off the book, it’s a great read.
. * Not to forget the intriguing reference to the Aleph of the Borges short story.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Aleph_(short_story)