Laura Imai Messina – The Phone Box at the Edge of the World

Translated from Italian to English by Lucy Rand
Manilla Pres, Great Britain, 2020

This was a book so beautiful that, when I finished reading it, I felt I had lost something precious. I deliberately read it slowly to hold onto it for as long as possible – a bit like the grieving and their grief, so delicately portrayed in this story.

I imagine everyone who reads this book will bring his or her own grief to it – the cover blurb says: We all have something to tell those we have lost. Yes, and this is doubtless why the book has resonated with so many worldwide.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World explores intimacy and loss, the different ways we grieve and love and emerge. For me, this is Yui’s story. Yui is mourning over the loss of her mother and daughter in the 2011 tsunami. She hears about the Wind Phone, is intrigued, and on the way to her first visit to, she meets Takeshi, grieving the death of his wife to cancer.

Over years of trips to the Wind Phone, they tentatively develop a love for one another and a set of rituals attached to the visits . Interestingly, Yui is a radio announcer by trade, but over all those years of visits, she finds it impossible to pick up the Wind Phone to speak to her departed family. Similarly, she finds she cannot speak of the love she has for Takeshi. This motif of silence is mirrored in Hana, Takeshi’s young daughter, who became mute after the death of her mother.

Yui does, however, develop a reverence for the Wind Phone and its garden and a deep attachment to its caretaker, Suzuki-san. Thus it is that at the start of this story we meet Yui in the midst of a typhoon, lashing down the Wind Phone to protect it from harm – an act at once personal and public and steeped in beautiful metaphor – at great risk to herself. Without risk, we have no chance of growth. This surely is the point here.

We return to this event towards the end of the story, and to a number of resolutions for Yui – an understanding of her own grief, despair, guilt and insecurity, and hence the point where her voice can at last be found.

The healing in this book is not so much because of time because time itself does not heal. Other visitors come to the Wind Phone, each at his own stage of grief. The book captures these characters, main and supporting, at different stages of their own and the classic phases of grieving. Each must find his own voice and the resolution of that grief.

The real wind phone upon which this story hangs is called Bell Gardia Kujira-Yama and is in Iwate Japan. The site is an open garden built to bring comfort to the minds and souls of its visitors. It has been known to people with deep grief as a place of comfort since its foundation 10 years ago.

The Namiita coast was damaged by the tsunami caused by the Great East Japanese Earthquake in 2011 and it this tsunami that takes the lives of Yui’s daughter and mother in the fictional account of The Phone Box at the Edge of the World.

Sasaki Itaru is the garden designer and ‘tree doctor’. Bell Gardia accepts public donations – see http://bell-gardia.jp/

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World declares itself as a message of hope for those in need and invites the sharing of readers’ life experiences. We are referred at the end of the acknowledgements section to https://www.yourstoriesofhope.com/about/, a site run by author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris:

Just as Heather was able to honour Lale Sokolov – she would like to extend this opportunity to others to share their stories of hope and join a global conversation. If you have a story that you would love to share, maybe even one that has remained untold for decades and generations, Heather would love to hear from you.

Ref: website

Deepest thanks to Allen & Unwin Australia for sending me a review copy.