“Books will always have the last word, even if nobody is around to read them.”
In The Book of Form and Emptiness, the primary narrator is the Book itself, i.e., the Book telling the story of Benny’s life. The role of the Book is both to convey an accurate account of Benny’s life and also to help him through his psychological struggles in the aftermath of his father’s untimely death.
Benny hears the Book speaking to him, narrating his story. Benny also hears other household objects talking to him, communicating their feelings and trying to influence his actions.
The situation is exasperated by the hoarding behavior of Benny’s mother, Annabelle, whose problem becomes significantly worse in the wake of her husband’s death. Her mental condition is not much better than Benny’s, e.g., she believes that her dead husband is communicating with her through the magnetic words on her refrigerator. She is also woefully negligent toward Benny.
Ruth Ozeki takes us deep into the distressed minds of Benny and Annabelle through all their struggles. As readers, we are not sure what is real and what is imagined. By the end of The Book of Form and Emptiness, we gain more clarity on what is actually happening in the story, but Ozeki leads us to doubt our own minds in the process.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is clearly drawing inspiration from Czech author Milan Kundera’s classic novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Beyond the similar titles, both novels deal with the creation and loss of memories and embrace magical realism combined with a highly creative narrative approach. In Kundera’s case, the narrator is revealed to be the author himself, or a fictionalized version of himself, whereas in the Ozeki’s novel the narrator is the Book.
I should also comment on Ozeki’s beautiful prose, with is especially poetic when the Book is addressing Benny directly. The Book of Form and Emptiness will capture you from the very first sentence and not let you go