I picked up The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World on a whim: the cover is exquisite, and the title intrigued me. I knew nothing beyond the blurb: the phone booth was real, and the author’s name did not appear to be traditional Japanese.
In fact, the Italian novelist, Laura Imai Messina, was born and raised in Rome. The book was written in Italian and translated into English. Messina earned advanced college degrees at Japanese universities and has lived in Japan for 15 years. Her husband is Japanese, and they have two children. Messina’s middle name translates from Japanese to “new residence” or “new well.” She does not appear to be native Japanese, but I trusted her to tell the story. I am glad I did.
This is such an understated, gorgeously written book, I am at a loss as to where to start. It is filled not just with loss — people travel to Bell Gardia to connect with lost loved ones — but with love, hope, surprises, and acceptance. Grief is a personal journey, and in our own grief we often seal ourselves away from others. Bell Gardia gives people a safe, private place to mourn, and to discover they are not alone.
Yui lost her mother and daughter in the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and divides her life in “before” and “after.” Her once-dyed black hair marks the passage of time, as the blonde grows out and is gradually cut away. Her isolation is self-imposed. She doesn’t speak about her loss: not because she doesn’t feel it keenly every day, but because she sees how it changes people who learn about it.
The Tokyo radio show host learns about the “wind phone” through a caller to her show. When she sets out to find the wind phone, she arrives at the town without a specific address, expecting visible directions. Instead, she sees a man walking around the windswept village with a map, and instinctively knows he also seeks the phone.
Takeshi is the first of the wonderful characters Yui encounters in this book. Each character is lovingly drawn, and often tells their own story — or details are revealed by Bell Gardia’s owner and guardian, Suzuki-san, who often shares tea with his visitors. Everyone’s loss is different, and each character responds to that loss differently. The author weaves a ribbon through the stories that, from time to time, take us beyond the story’s “now,” and those teasers of the future are as lovingly told as the current-day narrative.
The chapters alternate between narrative and… more: a drawing, a list, or a character’s intimate thoughts and observations. I both listened and read the printed copy, and I liked hearing the proper pronunciation of Japanese words. The “more” chapters were easy to understand on audio, even when they were pictures or visual elements.
As I read this book, I wondered if I chose wrongly, if this book was too much for now — but realized I couldn’t answer that for anyone else. If anything, this book showed me that everyone has their own path. Myself, it took me six months to start reading the book after I purchased it, and I am glad I read it. There were surprises, revelations, and unanticipated story arcs and character development. I enjoyed The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, and felt safe and warmly held while reading it.
If you didn’t read it, what about the book put you off? If you did read it, did you finish it? What kept you reading, or where did you stop? Comment below, or let me know!