Why you should read “The Book of Form and Emptiness”: An Argument in Three Themes

Matilde is a Politics student

Precautionary triggers list for this book: Mental health – Self harm – Addiction / relapse – Death of a parent/spouse – Sexual assault (alluded to).

The winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki is a sad, beautiful book about a mother Annabelle and her son Benny, and their journey through grieving their husband/father. Plagued by the issues in her marriage, a shopping addiction, and a son she can’t seem to understand, Annabelle struggles to balance motherhood, grief and self care. Benny, in turn, has started to hear voices, and in the throes of puberty, can’t seem to find his place in the world after his dad’s death. It’s a story of a family in pieces, but it’s also more than that. In this (spoiler free) review I want to cover some of the themes I found most interesting in this book in a feeble attempt to encourage you to read it. The Book of Form and Emptiness is a poetic and beautiful piece of modern literary fiction, and its treatment of these political themes, in addition to them being written so beautifully, is what made it stand out to me: 

  1. Consumerism and Things: “Things are needy. They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.” There’s a running theme of “things” in this book. Annabelle and Benny’s house is covered in things as a result of Annabelles job, her shopping addiction, and conclusively her inability to accept that her husband has died and is not coming back. In turn, Benny starts hearing things, literally; he hears common household things as they speak to him and each other, and finds very little fun in this, as the things express upset regarding the conditions they find themselves in and the way they’re being treated. This speaks on the harms of consumerism through a Marie Kondo-like message: things, in order to serve a purpose, must be appreciated. When that is no longer the case, we should be able to part with these things whilst still thanking and appreciating them. In failing to do this we run the risk of getting trapped, by the past and by the clutter. This parallels Annabelle’s experience of grief, her inability to accept her husband’s death; as this continues, her shopping addiction and hoarding tendencies progress, inhibiting her ability to connect with her son. Her relationship with things is out of control. I found the books focus on the way material objects impact our daily lives to be very interesting. Running with a magical realism notion of things as sentient beings fraught with emotions, it carries with it a creatively put insight into how we interact with consumerism and things around us. 
  1. Women under Pressure: The portrayal of Annabelle puts on show many of the unfair expectations society puts on women. After losing her husband, Annabelle’s life is thrown into a whirlwind: her son’s mental health deteriorates in a way she struggles to understand, her job continues to endlessly suck, and her own mental health seems to be slipping. It’s only so telling to see a character in this challenging position being judged for not giving everything her all. Her son judges her for her grief stricken mental state, her job criticises her for not doing the impossible, and those who are supposed to help her fail to do so, instead choosing to shame her for her poor mothering. She can’t seem to do anything right. This reflects how society treats not only women, but mothers specifically, as well as those going through mental health issues or grief. It’s not ok to not be ok: you have to stand up, do good by your child, be an adult, even when you can’t seem to muster this up in the face of adversity. Griefstriken and struggling, you’re still supposed to save face, stomach it and keep going at 110%. This unrealistic expectation is incredibly rooted in misogyny and patriarchy; the age-old expectation that women should sacrifice themselves for the good of their family, irregardless of the conditions they find themselves in, is not only a source of shame to women, but the cause of great suffering amongst those who give into the pressure. The way this was explored in this book through Annabelle, as she attempts to move through hardship, is in my limited view incredibly reflective of the pressures women and mothers face in a world that is not suited to help those who are struggling. 
  1. On Books: “Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.” I think the way in which books were talked about in this book (expect to see the word book a lot) was incredibly compelling as it reflected why I, and I’m sure many of you, read. “The Book” is a character in this book: acting as the narrator and addressing the reader and the characters as a Book, this literary breaking of the fourth wall was really effective to me. It’s a great narrator, and speaks at length about the value of books and on the lessons they have to teach us. In this, I saw the reason why I enjoy reading being reflected back to me: escapism. There’s a quote from Fran Lebowitz that sums this up pretty well: “I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life”. It sounds drastic and pessimistic. Still, the way I look at it, books offer us a chance to step out of our shoes and into the shoes of someone completely different, somewhen completely different, somewhere completely different. The range of experiences one can garner simply from reading serves both as a way to escape and to learn. This is a constant topic throughout The Book of Form and Emptiness: Benny and Annabelle both turn to literature for solace in hardship, and find within it escape and insight on going forward. This appreciation for books and literature is one of the themes which drew me in the most. — The fact that this won the Women’s Prize for Fiction played a role in my decision to review it; woman-led narratives have so much to offer in the way they allow us to see the world through a gendered perspective, to attempt to understand women’s experiences which differ from our own, and to appreciate the talent of women in the creative arts. 

Whilst there is a lot I haven’t covered here, I guarantee you there are only so many more reasons why you should read this book. It covers a variety of important topics that often lack representation in pop culture, and does so in a beautiful and highly creative way. I’ll leave you with a more general review I enjoyed, as well as with a final quote to draw you in, and possibly leave you feeling annoyed. “Books will always have the last word, even if nobody is around to read them”. Guess you better read it. 


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