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Letting the outsiders in

Cover of The Book of Form and Empti
A review of The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

Benny Oh hears voices. And not just any voices: he hears the thoughts and mutterings of all things, from the soft shirts in his dad’s closet to the Frisbee someone tossed up onto the school roof. These voices—some friendly, some rude—are a constant soundtrack that Benny struggles to contend with as he navigates life without his jazz musician father, Kenji, who has just died in an accident, and continues living with his mother, Annabelle, who has begun exhibiting hoarding tendencies since the night of Kenji’s death.

This story follows Benny and Annabelle on their (very different) journeys through the mourning process. Benny ends up in a children’s psychiatric ward—“Pedipsy,” as the young patients call it—where he meets a new friend who calls herself The Aleph (after a Jorge Luis Borges story) and who becomes a key person in his healing process. Meanwhile, lonely Annabelle sinks deeper into her habit of collecting and saving almost everything, in part due to her job as a news clipper and monitor. As their home fills up ever more with stuff, books come to be of service to Benny and Annabelle—though in very different ways.

So… wow. This book is dense and intense! But it is also a patient, delicate, and complicated story of grief, friendship, feeling lost, and beginning to find oneself again in ways that seemed unlikely from the start. It is a heavy read from time to time, and the reader may find (as I did…) that they bump up against Annabelle’s clumsy attempts to comfort her son as their newly small family is dealt blow after blow. But the intricate weaving-together of relationships, changing perspectives, unique voices, and finding a way forward are what keep you going through Ozeki’s fourth novel.

--reviewed by Annie A.

Oct 23, 2023