Ruth Ozeki’s The book of form and emptiness, a philosophical guide that teaches to live with loss- The New Indian Express


Express Message Service

The first impression Ruth Ozeki’s book of Form and Emptiness makes is that at 560 pages it’s about the right size for a novel that covers the landscape of grief and faith. But as you turn the pages, you see that it takes longer to get to the end. It demands your attention and patience in equal measure, although there is a plot as thick as a bacon sandwich. However, for what it’s worth, ozeki amplifies it with her sheer power, adding half a dozen layers.

The characters don’t just talk to each other; sometimes they also think for each other. But mind you, it’s not in a playful way. This is serious fiction in which the protagonists Benny and his mother Annabelle try to break through the walls that appear between them after the death of the former’s father and the latter’s husband Kenji. Death, especially that of our loved ones, brings us to the brink of crisis. To make matters worse, Kenji dies in a freak accident.

The thing about a crash is that it doesn’t come with a warning bell attached. Benny is a teenager dealing with the irreparable vacuum in his heart, and suddenly Annabelle must find a way to put her worries behind her to take care of the rest of her family. It’s not an impossible task, but for people whose clocks have stopped, it can be quite a hurdle to jump over.

Her job – Annabelle is a news tracker in a pre-digital world – leads her to hoard things like newspapers, CDs, magazines and even items that may not have any material value. Benny, on whose train of thought ozeki primarily focuses, begins to hear voices from objects around him.

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Earlier this year, The Book of Form and Emptyness won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and it’s not hard to see why. It delves deep into the larger practical (and philosophical) steps that help a person move on – both physically and spiritually.

The best thing about the book, however, is the omniscient author named Slavoj, who Benny befriends in a library. He acts as a mentor to the child and shows him how to find poetry, even in the trash. Eccentric and philosophical, Slavoj’s character will capture the reader’s attention as he rises above a comical distraction in the story, dropping gems about the world and the fuel it runs on.

Maybe that fuel is love. Benny falls in love with Alice and Alice in turn shows him the importance of healing. Then, of course, there is the love that Annabelle showers on Benny; Even if she’s not in control, she does whatever it takes to make her son happy, and while her attempts may seem ridiculous to a certain extent, it should be noted that she walks on eggshells even around Benny. Love, in all its manifestations, is what the novel ultimately pretends to be.

Ozeki enriches the book’s structure by bringing in literary luminaries like Walter Benjamin and Jorge Luis Borges through the doors of sprawling cameo appearances, and as if the basic nature of literature and life itself should be hopeful, she ties the corners together of faith and grief – one is reverently dependent on the other. “God is a story,” says Slavoj. What is a book if not a story?

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