Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, has won the Women’s prize for fiction.
The novelist, film-maker and Zen Buddhist priest takes the £30,000 award for a book that “stood out for its sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy”, according to the chair of judges, Mary Ann Sieghart.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is about 14-year-old Benny Oh, who begins to hear voices belonging to the things in his house after the death of his father. When his mother develops a hoarding problem, 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 truly matter.
The Guardian review praised Ozeki’s “calm, dry, methodical good humour and wit, her love affairs with linguistics and jazz and the absurd, her cautious optimism”.
Accepting the award, Ozeki told the audience it was “absurd”; she said she didn’t “win things”. In her speech she thanked the women and women’s institutions who had supported her throughout her career. “I wanted to call out the names of the women who have supported me, because now more than ever this is a time that we need to speak out and rewrite the dominant narratives that have landed us into quite dire straits.”
Ozeki told the Guardian she felt very grateful to have won but added: “It’s quite random because any of the books on the long list and shortlist are completely worthy.”
The Book of Form and Emptiness is partly a book about listening. Ozeki said that books were “unique in that when a reader reads a book she’s engaged in a way” that she would not be with a TV show or film. “You need to put yourself into 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” which tackled “big issues of life and death”; it was “a complete joy to read”. She called Ozeki a truly original and masterful storyteller.
Joining Sieghart on the judging panel were the journalist and editor Lorraine Candy, the author Dorothy Koomson, the journalist and author Anita Sethi and the broadcaster and writer Pandora Sykes.
Ozeki had been 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 “related to objects as though they were semi-sentient”, adding: “Even now I think about the stories that things could tell if only they could speak.”
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 Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini, The 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 the artist Grizel Niven.
The Women’s prize for fiction, formerly known as the Orange and then the Baileys prize, launched in 1996 and is awarded to “the best full-length novel of the year by a woman” written in English and published in the UK.
Bea Carvalho, head fiction buyer at the retailer Waterstones, said it had been an “incredible year for fiction from women”. Ozeki’s book had “stood out for its playfulness” and Carvalho said she was glad to see Ozeki get the recognition.
She added: “It’s lovely to see this love letter to books and reading win. It’s such a gift to booksellers.” Carvalho said it would be lovely to “introduce Ruth’s work to a wider audience”.
Last year the award was won by Susanna Clarke for Piranesi, her follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Madeline Miller, Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie.