Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Void, won the Women’s Fiction Award.
Novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest wins the £30,000 prize for a book that stood out for its bubbly writing, warmth, intelligence, humor and emotion,” according to jury chair Mary Ann Sieghart .
The Book of Form and Void is about 14-year-old Benny Oh, who begins to hear voices belonging to things in his household after his father dies. When his mother develops a problem with hoarding, the voices grow louder, so Benny seeks refuge in the silence and calm of a large public library. There he meets a series of eccentric characters who teach him to listen to the things that really matter.
The Guardian review praised Ozeki’s “calm, dry, methodical good humor and wit, his loves for linguistics and jazz and the absurd, his cautious optimism.”
Upon accepting the award, Ozeki told the audience that it was “absurd”; she said she didn’t “win things”. In her speech, she thanked the women and women’s institutions that have supported her throughout her career. “I wanted to call out the names of the women who have supported me, because now more than ever is the time when we need to speak up and rewrite the mainstream narratives that have gotten us into quite a difficult spot.”
Ozeki told the Guardian she was very grateful to have won, but added: “It’s pretty hit or miss because all the books in the longlist and the shortlist are so worth it.”
The Book of Form and Void is partly a book about listening. Ozeki said the books were “unique in that when a reader reads a book, they are engaged in a way” that they wouldn’t be with a TV show or movie. “You have to put yourself in the book,” she said. “It’s a real dialogue between the reader and the writer. Without the real investment of the reader, the book fails.
Sieghart had said the novel was a “celebration of the power of books and reading” that addressed “the great issues of life and death”; it was “a complete joy to read”. She called Ozeki a truly original and masterful storyteller.
Journalist and editor Lorraine Candy, author Dorothy Koomson, journalist and author Anita Sethi and journalist and writer Pandora Sykes joined Sieghart on the judging panel.
Ozeki was previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize, for her 2013 novel A Tale for the Time Being. She is affiliated with the Everyday Zen Foundation and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she teaches creative writing at Smith College.
She said she was inspired to write the novel because as a child she “relate to objects as if they were semi-sentient”, adding: “Even now I think about the stories that things could tell if only they could talk.
At 560 pages, The Book of Form and Emptiness was the longest book on this year’s shortlist, which also included The Bread the Devil Kneads by Lisa Allen-AgostiniThe Sentence by Louise Erdrich, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak and Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead.
Ozeki wins the cash prize, endowed by an anonymous donor, and the “Bessie”, a limited-edition bronze figurine by artist Grizel Niven.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange and later the Baileys Prize, was launched in 1996 and recognizes “the best novel of the year written by a woman” written in English and published in the UK .
Bea Carvalho, head of fiction buying at retailer Waterstones, said it had been an “incredible year for women’s fiction”. Ozeki’s book had “stood out for its playfulness” and Carvalho said she was happy to see it gaining this recognition.
She added: “It’s nice to see this love letter to books and reading, winning. It’s such a gift for booksellers. Carvalho said it would be nice to “feature Ruth’s work to a wider audience”.
Last year, the prize was won by Susanna Clarke for Piranesi, her sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Madeline Miller, Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie.