Ruth Ozeki’s fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, has won the Women’s prize for fiction.
The novelist, filmmaker 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 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, and 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”.
Sieghart said the novel was a “celebration of the power of books and reading” which tackles “big issues of life and death, and is a complete joy to read”. She called Ozeki a truly original and masterful storyteller.
Joining Sieghart on the judging panel were journalist and editor Lorraine Candy, author Dorothy Koomson, journalist and author Anita Sethi and broadcaster and writer Pandora Sykes.
Ozeki has previously been 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, and 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.
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.