My thanks to Canongate and Netgalley for a review copy of this book.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is certainly a strange book, a story about loss and coping, about depression and mental illness, about friends and support systems, and of course, about books, for it is a book that tells us the story, and books play a role in it in more than one way. But it is also a book that covers a lot of ground—and gives one a lot to think about as well.
In the story we meet the Oh family—Kenji, a half-Japanese and half-Korean musician who plays in a Jazz band is married to Annabelle, who is white, and they have one son Benjamin or Benny who is 13 going on 14. At the start of the story itself, Kenji who both drinks and is into drugs dies in a rather tragic accident. Both Annabelle and Benny are heartbroken and while Annabelle loves Benny and tries to do her best for him, the two begin to not only drift apart but also fall into their own spirals of depression. Annabelle who had left library school which she loved to take a job in media monitoring for large companies to meet growing expenses is struggling to keep her job (her skills being found redundant) and only finds solace in buying little things and hoarding—she has no friends or support from any quarters. Benny on the other hand begins to hear things—’inanimate’ daily objects from windows to scissors speaking to him—and telling him of their own pain and things they have witnessed. And when he acts upon this, he is diagnosed with mental illness and even hospitalised. His solace lies in the public library, the only place where he finds comfort (and has since he was little). Here and at the hospital he makes friends with an old hobo—a poet/philosopher who loves his vodka, and whom they call the Bottleman (His first name is Slavoj; this and his views had me thinking that he might probably be based on Zizek, but I can’t really say with certainly not having read enough of his work) and a girl Alice/Athena who goes by the name the Aleph (from Borges), whom Benny falls in love with. From them he gets support and understanding while for Annabelle, some magic begins to work when a Marie Kondo like volume, written in this case by a zen monk, falls into her hands (pretty literally).
But this is just a bare outline for this book is much much more. And even in telling its story it is very different from anything I’ve read for here it is, as I wrote, a book that is telling the story. The book of Benny’s life—each chapter is told to us by the book somewhat like a third person narrator, but there are times when Benny is not communicating with ‘his’ book and this reflects in the narration. Interspersed are chapters where either Benny is speaking directly to us (or rather to his book), or the book is addressing us.
As I wrote the book covers a lot of ground—it isn’t only the characters’ personal stories, but also themes of loss and grief, philosophy (the ideas and story of Walter Benjamin, Zen thought and approaches to life, among others) and art (the work Angelus Novus by artist Paul Klee, the climate change/global disaster themed snow globes that the Aleph creates, at some level Annabelle’s crafts), poetry (little ones that Kenji wrote using fridge magnets), consumerism and decluttering, global warming and climate change, and mental illness and ‘normalcy’—so so much that it would be a little hard writing about it all, and even doing justice to it really.
But it was a book that certainly had me thinking all through—on mental illness for instance—on how ‘normal’ is defined and considered—whether we really need to push everyone into those narrow understandings, and also how misunderstanding a person can end up furthering the pressures they are already under like Benny’s doctor ends up doing here.
Then of course there is life itself—how do we understand it, what we make of it—how we cope with loss, the role that friends and support systems play—and how these might come from rather different quarters, even when we are not expecting or looking for them. Sometimes there is a little bit of magic that helps us along, as it does with these characters—here of course, the magic is related to books!
I liked all the characters in the story, flawed though most of them were, and watching Annabelle and Benny spiral down into their own emotional troubles did get me emotional as well; one kept wanting things to turn out right, and yet wondering whether they would, and how.
This is a difficult book to review since it has so much in it which is difficult to capture in a few (ok, I know I’ve already written more than a few words)—but a wonderful experience to read, and one that had me not only engaged but thinking all through—a book whose impact one can best feel when reading it rather than when it’s described.
p.s. Just in case I’ve made it sound too dreary and sombre, it isn’t really, there are plenty of uplifting moments.