Friday, October 14, 2022

Ruth Ozeki - The Book of Form and Emptiness

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 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 mesmerising 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.
With its blend of sympathetic characters, riveting plot and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions, The Book of Form and Emptiness is classic Ruth Ozeki - bold, wise, poignant, playful, humane and heartbreaking.

Comment: In 2018 I've read a book by this author which I absolutely adored. It was sad and sometimes heartbreaking, but a very good story which grabbed from start to finish. Once I got aware this new book would be released, I was immediately curious about the blurb and I've agreed with a friend to do a buddy read once the paperback was out. 
I've finished it a couple of days ago and, sadly, I must say it wasn't as magical as I hoped it would be.

In this story we meet Benny Oh, a young boy entering his teenage years, and his mother Annabelle right after they loose Kenjy, Benny's father. Kenjy was a talented but not acknowledged enough musician and he had some issues with his lack of success. As soon as the story begins, Kenji is killed in an accident and now the rest of his family must move on, but Annabelle has a job which enables her hoarding tendencies and Benny suddenly starts being able to ear the voices of objects. This makes doctors label him a mentally ill boy and he spends time in a mental hospital. When he comes out, however, the voices remain despite medication, and Benny meets friends at the library, a place where he feels he can have some peace, but is there any hope for him to be able to cope with who he is?

This author is a very talented writer. I thought this after reading the other book but I liked it, so it is always easy to say this, but now that I have read this second book by her, I stand by my opinion, she is a good writer and her way of telling things works out well for me, her writing is moody, suggestive and allows for the story's atmosphere to be special, to make me want to feel or think specific things, related to the story or just because I let my mind go other places.

However, the characters in this story didn't captivate me as much as the ones in the other book. I liked Benny and his mother well enough, they are fascinating characters on their own, but the path they go in while the story develops wasn't as interesting to me as I wish and, to be honest, there were chapters where it felt as if a lot was repetitive and focused on details I feel weren't that amazing, leaving behind - in my opinion - other elements which could have made for a more captivating tale.

The story is mostly told from Benny's and Annabelle's POV, but we also have the POV of the Book, which is seen as the Book of Benny's Life, sort of, and several aspects are shared with the reader as if there is a ongoing dialogue between Benny and his Book or as of Benny is aware of the Book talking and saying things to the audience. I know it can sound a little weird to imagine, but it does work once one gets used to it. For me, the problem was that it got to a point I simply wasn't as impressed with the story anymore and the special little things passed me by.

In his road to understanding himself, Benny decides to preserve his mental sanity by skipping school where bullying and the voices of everything, mostly the negative ones, keep bombarding him with things he can't deal with. He finds solace at a library, where his mind can rest more easily with the stories in the books or simply the quietness of the space. He finds Alice, who calls herself Aleph, she used to be a patient at the hospital he was at as well, and they become friends and Benny develops a crush on her. I confess I disliked the parts/scenes when Benny interacts with her and other secondary characters because I didn't find them appealing and I feel their interactions didn't really help Benny improve.

When I say this, I mean that I failed to notice if Benny actually went through the expected self help journey he needed to get over whatever obstacle he faced. I fear the author might have intended this at the end but between the lack of attention I had by then and the confusion of certain situations, I just didn't find that to be believable nor justified enough. I feel the things Benny faced, the people he met and even the complications Annabelle had on her life were done in compelling ways, in such a compassionate way that I couldn't help feeling richer in spirit by having read through their story. This feeling happened to me with the other book by the author, for instance.

I'm fully aware this is supposed to be a more conceptual story, more along the philosophical line and there is plenty each reader can get from this, the author certainly used a lot of bases, from classical to modern art expressions to convey an idea/message, but I wish I could have had a stronger connection with Benny. This would have helped me to appreciate the story more, even though I did like the Zen/Buddhism notions of how to deal with life, the conversations about books having power, about the importance of words, among other interesting themes. 

In the end, though, I guess the important aspect is how a story makes you feel, whether is the cleverest or the simplest of tales, but here somehow, part of that mix didn't convince me enough.
Grade: 6/10

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