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

Published by Manilla Press

Publication date – 25 June 2020

Source – review copy

Translated by Lucy Rand

When Yui loses her mother and daughter in the tsunami she wonders how she will ever carry on. Yet, in the face of this unthinkable loss, life must somehow continue. One day she hears about a man who has an old disused telephone box in his garden. There, those who have lost loved ones find the strength to speak to them and begin to come to terms with their grief. As news of the phone box spreads, people will travel there from miles around. Soon Yui will make her own pilgrimage to the phone box, too, but once there she cannot bring herself to speak into the receiver. Then she finds Takeshi, a bereaved husband whose own daughter has stopped talking in the wake of their loss. What happens next will warm your heart, even when it feels as though it is breaking. For when you’ve lost everything – what can you find?

Yui lost her mother and young daughter in the tsunami. She wonders how she will get through every day. Then she hears about a phone box in a garden that people visit to talk to their lost loved ones. They visit day after day, week after week, talking quietly into the receiver, letting the words be carried away on the air. So Yui decides to visit. Once there she finds she can’t bring herself to talk but she does meet Takeshi and slowly she finds the words she was struggling to say before.

There is something ethereal about the narrative despite the fact that the only magic involved are the words used to tell Yui’s tale. Yui is coping, just, with the loss of the two people most close to her. She has retreated into herself as a way of learning to live with the deaths of her mother and young daughter. She doesn’t need a telephone box to know she is haunted by them. When she first hears about the phone box she knows she has to visit. To have one more chance to talk to her loved ones. However when she gets there she doesn’t. She instead meets Takeshi, there to speak to his dead wife. The pair become friends quickly, driving up the mountains to the phone box each month, Yui sitting in the garden watching Takeshi through the panes of glass in the phone box, never quite at the point to pick up the receiver herself.

The pair meet other visitors to the gardens where the phone box resides. They slowly learn about these visitors, their own type of bereavement having shaped their lives. Yui learns about Takeshi’s daughter, who has not spoken since her mother’s death. She befriends the girl and as helps Takeshi navigate the path of parenthood, they become closer.

Slowly, the phone box works its magic on the visitors. The calmness of the gardens sets troubled souls at ease. The release of pent up rage, guilt, and grief expelled down a telephone line not connected to the outside world allows those speakers to grieve in a different, cathartic way.

Each main chapter is interspersed with smaller chapters, often just one page, that give more snapshot insights into a passage from the previous chapter. These range from a list of songs to the contents of a bento box but are often all the more moving because of their sparseness.

I think part of the ethereal feeling also comes from the setting and the fact that the book is translated for I find that when reading a novel originally written in another language to the one being read, the translator leaves a little bit of magic behind.

Whilst the book deals with grief it is not a maudlin tale. Yes there is sadness, sadness at the loss of people we only meet through the memories of others and sadness for the loss of what was to come for them and the ones left behind. However there is also a hope,  the hope that comes to Yui and Takeshi that they aren’t insulting the memories of their loved ones by being happy, that it is not their fault that they died and that their grief isn’t defined by anything or anyone else.

I look forward to reading more from Laura Imai Messina in the future.

Recommended.

This was book 4 in my 20 Books of Summer 2020 challenge.

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