This is a story about death, grief, books, material possessions, mental health, mental illness, zen ideology, hoarding, clutter, consumerism, single parenthood… the list goes on and makes this story sound both expansive and perhaps rather dark.
Expansive it certainly is. It stretches to 546 pages in hardback, has four points of view, and took me about a month on and off to read. Dark though? In places, but not really. It has a lightness and a humour running through it, despite the seriousness of its content, which warmed me when reading it.
It is the story of teenage Benny and his mother Annabelle. Following the death of father and husband, Kenji, Annabelle and Benny must navigate their new lives without him. In the midst of his grief Benny starts hearing the voices of inanimate objects – the anguish of glass as a bird hits it, the happy tinkle of a spoon, the malicious murmurings of a pair of scissors… and so on.
As Benny struggles to maintain behaviour that appears ‘normal’ to the rest of the world and becomes increasingly distressed, he is admitted to a children’s psychiatric ward, and then on discharge seeks solace in the calm of the public library, where even the voices seem to hush. He meets others operating somewhat on the outskirts of ‘normal’ society: the Aleph, an older girl from the psychiatric ward who leaves notes in library books, and the Bottleman, a homeless poet who drinks a little too much and collects bottles. Meanwhile, Annabelle does her best to look after Benny, while facing her own struggles around her job, grief, and tendency to collect possessions that she has no space for.
The narrative voice of this book is one of its most unique aspects. Short sections, marked by a sans serif font, are in Benny’s voice, while the rest is told by ‘The Book’. The Book is Benny’s book – one that speaks to him throughout the novel, because like all inanimate objects, books have a voice too.
That’s what books are for, after all, to tell your stories, to hold them and keep them safe between our covers for as long as we’re able. We do our best to bring you pleasure and sustain your belief in the gravity of being human.The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki, p36 of hardback
The voice of the book is avuncular, telling Benny’s story when he is too upset or biased to tell it right, and Benny comments on the book’s narration in what I found to be a believable and humorous teenage voice. The Book is also omniscient and can tell us other points of view too – primarily Annabelle, Benny’s mother and the second protagonist of the piece.
While Benny’s story is the lynchpin, it was actually Annabelle’s point of view that engaged and interested me most. She’s a complex character – relatable and infuriating and, ultimately, inspiring. A single mother, grieving for her husband whom she loved, trying to do right by her son while also having dreams of her own – both small, in her passion for crafting, and bigger, in her ambition of one day becoming a children’s librarian.
Annabelle is not a glamorous character. From Benny’s point of view she is often seen as an embarrassment, wearing unfashionable clothes with spills on them, talking to him like he is still five years old, and being unable to keep the house free of clutter or the fridge stocked with milk. Yet as we get more and more glimpses into her inner life, we see she is actually extraordinarily resilient. She is lonely, fearful of losing her job, benefits and housing, and of where her son’s mental breakdowns might lead – but she manages to convince her bosses to retrain her rather than lay her off, and enters into her new job in the digital world with an eagerness to learn and an enviable positivity, dubbing her new over-the-top workstation as ‘mission control’. She never gives up on Benny, finding ways to stand up to the bureaucracy of the local police station to enable her to log missing person reports when he runs off, and she also stands up for her own needs and for the little things that make her happy, despite them often being looked down on by others.
These may sound like small victories – and they are: the struggles and drama of this story are those of the day to day. But for me, Annabelle was the heart of this book. Everything about her is so relatable and – in the end – strong. It was her story that glued me to the pages of this book as it approached its end; I so wanted a happy ending for Annabelle.
It is a long book, and I would say I lost a little motivation at around the 75% mark, when another point of view is inserted, and I was wanting a little more momentum to carry me to the end, but that really is a quibble. This was a fascinating, accomplished and engaging read, which well deserves the Women’s Prize for Fiction which it won this year.