Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction has been awarded to a book narrated by a book. American-Canadian author Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel has the philosophical title The Book of Form and Emptiness, perhaps no surprise from an author who combines writing, teaching and being a Zen Buddhist priest. The teenage protagonist Benny finds the Book when he takes refuge in a public library to escape a difficult home life.
"In the beginning
A book must start somewhere. One brave letter must volunteer to go first, laying itself on the line in an act of faith, from which a word takes heart and follows, drawing a sentence into its wake…"
Ozeki, born to an American father and a Japanese mother, started her career working in film. Her novels are very visual, and she admits she struggles to write with a neutral, omniscient narrator.
“When I started writing this book I thought I would write in a third-person omniscient voice, because that’s the ‘proper’ voice of a novel. But of course, I’ve never been able to do that. I was writing along very happily using that third-person omniscient voice when suddenly Benny interrupted and started to object to the way that the narrator was talking and particularly what the narrator was talking about. The narrator at that point was talking about his parents’ sex lives and Benny was like ‘No, let’s not go there, that’s too much information.’ And that’s when I realised that the narrator of the book was a character and in fact it was the book itself, and the book and Benny are having this dialogue.”
However, the book is not the only thing Benny hears. The 13-year-old’s musician father died a year before and his mother developed a hoarding problem. Benny gradually starts to hear objects speaking to him. He finds relief in the library, where they at least speak in whispers, and where he finds kindred (human) souls. But as the voices become overwhelming, those around him think they could be a sign of mental illness.
You can find an excerpt, an audio sample and a reading guide on Ruth Ozeki’s site and another reading guide on the Women’s Prize site where you can also discover the other long- and short-listed novels.
Ozeki’s novel was chosed from a shortlist of six.
Native American author Erdrich’s novel is set not in a library but a bookshop – a haunted one in Minneapolis, while British-Turkish author Elif Shafak’s novel is narrated by a fig tree in a tavern in conflict-torn Cyprus which witnesses a Romeo and Juliet romance between a Greek Cypriot boy and a Turkish Cypriot girl. Meg Mason and Lisa Allen-Agostini novels feature female protagonists reaching their forties and questioning their marriages, in Agostini's case one marred by domestic abuse in her native Trinidad. Maggie Shipstead's novel, which was also shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, tells parallel stories of a fictional female aviation hero and the actress playing her in a modern-day film.