Oh, Benny!

Book Review for “The Book of Form and Emptiness” by Ruth Ozeki.

Summary: After the tragic death of his beloved musician father, fourteen-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, Annabelle, 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, Benny discovers a strange new world, where “things happen.” He falls in love with a mesmerizing 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.”

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary, USA – fictional city; Other Categories: Novel, Coming-of-Age, Diverse Authors, #OwnVoices, Mental Health.

Book of Form and Emptiness

Have you ever seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction where Will Farrell’s character is a guy who suddenly hears a voice in his head (played by Emma Thompson), and he soon realizes that the voice is narrating his life? I’ve seen it, and although I dislike Farrell in general, I thought the concept was at least something different, if a bit farfetched. If I recall the film correctly, Farrell’s character was pretty alarmed at this phenomenon, and his character tries to hunt down the person behind the voice, to try to get them to stop. Well, in this book, Benny has more than just one voice he’s hearing, but he knows their source, and they’re not human. Benny is rightfully disturbed by these voices, and it is no surprise that his reactions and conversations with the voices are what gets him institutionalized.

My regular readers know that I don’t go in for fantasy novels, and I’m not thrilled by magical realism in books either, but the truth is, I don’t think there’s anything fantastical or magical here. In fact, many people hear voices, and it is a documented mental health condition. Plus, Ozeki writes with such open innocence that even the most fanciful parts of this novel – in particular the parts where his Book speaks with him while telling his story – feel very natural. By the way, something like this also occurred in her novel “A Tale for the Time Being” when the entries of the Nao’s diary that Ruth is reading change and even disappear for a bit – and that really was improbable. I realize this might seem a bit hypocritical, but these inclusions work so well with the narrative here that I actually love them! Also, because it is only Benny who experiences them, maybe we should call them by their clinical name – auditory hallucinations. Whatever, I still found them enjoyable, and with Ozeki’s poetically accessible prose, they’re even beautiful.

Of course, there’s more to this story than this, since we also get to know Benny’s mother Annabelle, who is pretty much a mess, and I mean emotionally, professionally, physically, and even environmentally (she’s become a hoarder). Yes, some of her problems stem from having lost her husband, and that’s perfectly understandable. Furthermore, all of Benny’s problems only seem to exacerbate her pain and feelings of being lost and helpless. So, while we watch Benny struggle with his voices, we also watch Annabelle struggle with Benny and everything else in her life. This might sound like this novel is heavy and oppressive, but again, because Ozeki’s prose is so approachable, yet still evocative, the whole book has a very light feeling to it, as if despite the graver parts of the story are surrounded by a gentle, sweet-smelling mist, or appear behind a very thin, semitransparent curtain. This all seems to take the sharp edges off of this story, and allow us to flow with it, without feeling like we’re getting bruised at every obstacle in the characters’ paths.

Don’t get me wrong, this literary patina doesn’t mean that we don’t feel like we’re invested in Benny, Annabelle, or any of the minor characters, because we certainly do. Ozeki has a way of endearing every one of her characters to her readers, so that even as we worry about them, we also know that somehow, things will work out for them, even if it isn’t what we expect. In this way, Ozeki seems to have a deep understanding of the human condition, and what human frailty is, as well as how it manifests in ordinary people (as well as in some extraordinary people). This is what I love about Ozeki’s writing, and why she astonishes me with her stories. She makes me read outside my comfort zone, and enjoy every page. Since several things in this book made me laugh, and quite a few others had me choking up, and with an ending that brought tears to my eyes, I think this book deserves to be very warmly recommended, and awarded a full five stars out of five. (Too bad I didn’t read it last year – since it certainly would have been one of my favorite books of 2021! However, it has been long listed for the latest Women’s Fiction Prize so… fingers crossed!)

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“The Book of Form and Emptiness” by Ruth Ozeki is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.

 

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9 thoughts on “Oh, Benny!

  1. I enjoyed the review, even though I’m in the minority by not being an Ozeki fan (read Tale for the Time Being when it was in Booker contention and — gasp! – didn’t particularly like it). That being said, I’ve always felt I needed to read at least one additional book by Ozeki, just to make sure; this one certainly sounds intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve only read My Year of Meats from this author’s books, and absolutely loved it. I’m not sure why I haven’t read more (maybe because the more a book gets referred to as literary fiction, the less I feel like it’s something I’d enjoy reading.) This does sound different and wonderful, although I think I should probably read A Tale for the Time Being before reading anything else by her. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

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