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The Book of Form and Emptiness

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

As seen:

  • Women's Prize for Fiction 2022

By Ruth Ozeki

avg rating

7 reviews

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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.


15 Aug 2022


The best book I have read this year and one I shall most definitely read again at some point.

11 Jun 2022


Learned lots from this absorbing novel about a boy who starts hearing voices after his father's sudden death. A heartbreaking but hopeful book written with huge imagination and great sensitivity.

06 Jun 2022

Methley Book Club

This book split the opinion of the group and consequently generated a good discussion! Individual scores ranged from 3 to 9 (out of 10) and our group average worked out at 5.9. All agreed there were some interesting themes explored in the novel, including bereavement, grief, mental health, the power of literature and consumerism but the way these were explored was challenging for some readers. The many layers of the story and the multiple voices, including those of objects and interjections by the book itself, proved confusing, chaotic and overwhelming for some. By contrast, other book club members enjoyed this unusual and cleverly original mode of storytelling and became quickly absorbed in the tale. One of the discussion points in the group was around the exploration of mental health issues in the book. Most agreed it was done well although some felt a little uneasy at the way in which the book ended, with regard to Benny’s mental illness. The sections of the book involving Annabelle were enjoyed the most by some of our readers and these felt very realistic in their portrayal of how hoarding problems can escalate. A number of book club members felt that the novel was overly long but others focused on its beautiful message, with one reader predicting ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ to possibly become a modern classic. Ultimately we are all most grateful for the opportunity to read this novel and shadow the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

04 Jun 2022

Julia M

I really enjoyed this book and the many threads/themes which make up the story. I was amazed how ‘readable’ the book is; I didn’t struggle at all to get into it and didn’t find it pretentious or highbrow (as I admit I was expecting!)
I was really moved by Annabel’s situation and my heart went out to her in her grief. She had such good intentions/plans to deal with everything that was mounting up but she just got overwhelmed. I totally relate to that. The situation was portrayed so realistically and with such understanding.
I did love Benny too and I was absorbed by the portrayal of his mental health problems but I really related to Annabel and really enjoyed the inclusion of details such as the poetry on the fridge door and the references to the book about tidying!
There were lots of interesting characters - I loved the librarian - and I also enjoyed the book itself having a voice!
I was very moved and spent the last quarter of the story feeling quite emotional. Overall, an unusual but highly effective and touching portrayal of bereavement, grief and mental health issues.

27 May 2022

Pauline 30

An unusual novel, exploring a wide range of themes including grief, mental health, consumerism, tolerance of those who are different and Zen philosophy amongst many! The story revolves around the relationship between Benny Oh and his mother Annabelle as they struggle to cope with the death of his father, Kenzi. Tbere are many 'voices' in the novel and one of the narrators is a book! This opens up exploration of the power of books and Libraries.
I found the story started off at a good pace, but I flagged about halfway through when the plot diverted to tell the story of Aiken, a Japanese woman who becomes a nun. However the later part of the novel is very moving as Benny and his mother find a way forward. I think the novel is maybe too long and there are too many ideas for one book! However, it is a moving look at mental illness and there are many colourful characters along the way. Certainly an interesting read!

23 May 2022


The Book of Form and Emptiness will stay with me for a long time and is destined to become a modern classic. A thought provoking and at times disturbing story which describes PTSD in all it's horror.
The death of a beloved father and husband results in devastating consequences for his son Benny and his wife Annabelle. Each is trapped in their own misery, although Benny recognises his behaviour Annabelle is in denial of hers, at times each tries to reach out to the other. Eventually it is the kindness of virtual strangers that saves them. I get the impression that in real life it probably wouldn't have been a happy ending.
Jacqui, Methley Book Club

22 May 2022


A very absorbing book covering the trials of living with psychotic teenager and a mother who cannot help but hoard and live in total kiosk. The unusual mode of storytelling including the use of the book as a character within the story was confusing at first. Once into the heart-tugging story the main characters, Benny the teenager and Anabelle his mother was unable to accept the sudden death of husband and father Kenji. Benny’s head was a whirl of voices emanating from all manner of objects, his mother Anabelle was unable to accept her role as the new head of the family and slid into a world of untidiness and hoarding.
Annabelle could only relate to him as a child and not as a teenager attempting to manage his grief over the sudden and tragic death of his father. Benny’s health issues caused him to retreat from formal learning by causing disruption to classes in school.
Both Annabelle lack of organisation within the home increased the pressure on Benny who could not rationalise his situation and often ran away. His main escape was to the library wherein he would settle into his regular cubbyhole surrounded with a random selection of books. Whilst at the Library he met with Aleph and the homeless groupies. He became a friend to Aleph which became stronger as the story developed and this caused him to fall into a seedy part of life. Brushes with the school authorities, Child Protection department resulted in his being detained for periods within a mental facility.
A very moving story covering family life with psychotic problems and how difficult it becomes throughout the teenage years coupled with a parent with hoarding problems.
A book that drew you into the lives of the main characters thereby creating a situation wherein the reader must find out how they ended up. Did they sort out their lives together?
Peter @Methley Book Club Rated 3.5 stars

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