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Reviewing Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki's fantastic book is neither form-fitting nor empty.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Science fiction and fantasy are often intended as commentaries on our own societies, on the things that scare us the most, blown way out of proportion in order to scare us even more. They provide echoes of vague promises to save the world, to make everything better, and what happens when those promises aren’t kept.

As such, it would make perfect sense for both science fiction and fantasy to frequently grapple with the topic of mental health. But this dance is a dangerous one, which can quickly verge into uncharted territory. Many mental illnesses play with the sufferer’s concept of reality, making certain things or states of being seem more real to the inside observer than they are to the outside observer. 

So how are authors supposed to walk the line between interweaving fantasy plotlines with characters’ mental-health struggles, without being insensitive to readers going through the same thing? How do they ensure they don’t dismiss the alternate realities created by mental illness as mere fantasies?

Writers interested in walking this tightrope should take notes from Ruth Ozeki’s playbook. In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ozeki proves that fantasy, reality, religion, mythology, and more can play seamlessly together. She honors the real experiences of grief and pain and suffering and reminds us that whether the voices in our head are real or imagined, we would all do well to listen. 

Warning: This review of The Book of Form and Emptiness contains spoilers.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

The Book of Form and Emptiness

By Ruth Ozeki

The two central characters in this novel, adolescent boy Benny Oh and his mother Annabelle, have very different relationships to the material world. Throughout the story, those relationships change shape dramatically. 

The exceptionally tragic death of Annabelle’s husband exacerbates Annabelle’s tendencies toward hoarding. Her collection of newspapers from her career as an archivist grows and grows, as do her collections of objects that, to Benny, and to readers initially, seem to hold no obvious significance.

Meanwhile, Benny is completely confounded by existence in his mother’s increasingly cluttered space. But Benny’s struggle isn’t just with the fact that his mother is a hoarder, and he doesn’t understand her preoccupation with all these items: Benny hears voices. 

Each inanimate object has something to say, and they have chosen Benny as the one to listen. Whether he wants to hear them or not, as he walks down the hallways in his home, each object on the walls and the floor cries out to him, desperately seeking to share a message that only Benny can hear. It becomes so overwhelming that the young boy seeks refuge in the quiet of a library, where he can be free from the chaos and confusion.

Fantasy vs. reality

To the untrained eye, Benny hears voices and Annabelle hoards objects. It would be easy to dismiss them both as struggling with mental illness, dealing with a reality that isn’t actually reality. 

But Ozeki makes sure her readers feel the realness of both Annabelle and Benny’s experience. She does this by spending equal time with each character, showing that she is not prioritizing one experience as more real than the other. It is impossible to read this novel and not feel sympathy pangs tugging you between both Annabelle and Benny. Because even though their responses to grief are so vastly different from each other’s that an uncrossable chasm seems to have opened between them, they are both so completely understandable. 

Readers never have to question whether the voices Benny hears are really there. They don’t wonder if this is part of some fantastical world that only he lives in, or if Benny has some sixth sense the rest of us are missing. Because Ozeki’s descriptions are so poignant that as Benny hears voices, we hear them, too. When the scissors scream at the poor boy to stab his teacher, we feel their anger, their sharpness, and we feel Benny’s angst. 

Likewise with Annabelle. As she struggles through a mountain of rotten newspapers and broken glass, trying to decide which crumples and shards she might be able to give up, we don’t see them as trash. We see the significance they have to Annabelle—an important date or memory, a teapot that reminds her of the last time she ever spoke to her husband. 

Religious and spiritual intersections

Through the narrative structure of this fantastical novel, Ozeki showcases another important piece of many grief and mental health journeys—religion and spirituality. 

This story is, quite cleverly, narrated by a book, which bears the same name as Ozeki’s novel itself. In addition to this narrator—which is Benny’s book—the story also features a formative book in Annabelle’s grief journey. This is a Zen Buddhist text about how to properly tidy one’s space.

These books find Benny and Annabelle at exactly the right time. Benny communicates directly with his book, the narrator, while Annabelle communicates directly with the author of her book through a series of heartwarming and tear-jerking letters. 

Their communication with these respective books gives readers another invaluable inside view into the struggles both characters are undergoing. Although they are sharing in grief over the same death (not the same loss, as Ozeki emphasizes throughout), they are not able to communicate well with each other. These books help them both grow gradually to understand one another better, until they ultimately reach the point where their lives and experiences can once again intersect and they can support each other. 

Ozeki’s characters are hurting, and that is clear throughout the story. It means that sometimes the choices they make and the paths they follow are not the ones readers in a more stable situation might make or follow. 

But Ozeki never questions her characters. She does not overexplain their reasoning. Instead, she describes their pain and heartache and internal turmoil so perfectly that readers can easily understand them as two human beings. Their identities are not their mental illness or perpendicular responses to a parallel grief. Rather, their identities make them characters that will live in our hearts long after we close The Book and Form and Emptiness.