It’s a real pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, the international bestseller from Laura Imai Messina (translated by Lucy Rand), and to share my review. Originally published by Manilla Press (Bonnier Books’ literary imprint) in hardback, e-format and as an audiobook in June 2020, the paperback was published on 4th March. My thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for the invitation and support: my reading copy was my own, purchased for kindle.
After a difficult year, I’ve tended to avoid books that focus on grief and loss – but as soon as I saw this one, I knew it was one I just had to read. I knew there’d be tears – I was already sobbing just watching the short video (you’ll find it here) about the true story of the Wind Phone. In the wake of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, a rotary phone on the outskirts of Otsuchi came to be a gathering place for people to recall loved ones lost, a site of pilgrimage for many seeking to deal with the grief of the absence of a loved one. Isn’t that just so beautiful? But less emotionally, I far too rarely read literary fiction in translation – and this was one I just couldn’t resist…
We all have something to tell those we have lost…
On a windy hill in Japan, in a garden overlooking the sea stands a disused phone box. For years, people have travelled to visit the phone box, to pick up the receiver and speak into the wind: to pass their messages to loved ones no longer with us.
When Yui loses her mother and daughter in the tsunami, she is plunged into despair and wonders how she will ever carry on. One day she hears of the phone box, and decides to make her own pilgrimage there, to speak once more to the people she loved the most. But when you have lost everything, the right words can be the hardest thing to find…
Then she meets 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…
The Phone Box at the Edge of the World is an unforgettable story of the depths of grief, the lightness of love and the human longing to keep the people who are no longer with us close to our hearts.
I always expected this book to be an emotional experience – the true story of the wind phone had already moved me deeply, the whole idea of individuals visiting to speak to those they have lost on a disconnected telephone set in a remote Japanese garden, all those conversations and expressions of love, the goodbyes that never happened.
But although there’s much grief and loss, and the stories of people struggling to come to terms with the absence of their loved ones (lost in the most harrowing of circumstances), its real focus is on hope, love, the possibility of finding happiness – and with a beauty and gentleness to the writing that was intensely moving in itself. At the book’s start, I marked sentences and paragraphs I wanted to be able to return to, that captured a moment or a feeling with such delicacy and perfection – but I soon realised I’d be marking every single page.
The central story focuses on Yui, grieving the loss of both her mother and young daughter – her grief is visceral, the memories of moments of happiness with her daughter always near the surface, the depth of her anguish causing a physical reaction whenever she catches sight of the sea that tore them apart. It’s also the story of Takeshi, who lost his wife, and now has sole responsibility for his own young daughter who is no longer able to speak following the loss of her mother. The wind phone brings these two damaged people together, allows them to share their grief and make it more manageable – their growing closeness brings them both peace and comfort, but also introduces the possibility of happiness and new love that will help them heal.
We discover the stories of others too, drawn to the place of pilgrimage – and I particularly loved finding that those private conversations with lost loved ones often aren’t really about the big things but more about the minutiae of life, the smaller details that they’re no longer able to share.
This is a story of hope and healing, the possibility of moving on from tragedy, the bravery needed to grasp new opportunities and leave the fear behind, to understand that moving on is very different from forgetting – it’s emotionally quite perfect, and it’s extraordinarily beautiful. It’s a book filled with moments – some very quiet ones, small things like unexpected laughter, a shared conversation, but some on a much larger canvas. And there are searing and unforgettable images, simply described but immensely powerful, filled with emotion – I particularly liked the repeated use of framing, viewing the spaces between the lines, and the way it can make life more manageable.
With Yui’s growing closeness to Takeshi’s daughter, there’s a strong focus on motherhood too – linked with the loss of her own mother, her fear that she’s replacing her lost daughter, that it might not be possible to love another child enough, and that if she does it will somehow diminish her own daughter’s memory.
I have to mention the book’s unconventional structure – the chapters that carry the narrative alternate with others that are shorter, sometimes lists prompted by a thought, often mundane, sometimes unexpectedly poignant and emotional – which I really enjoyed. And I also very much enjoyed my introduction to Japanese conventions and culture – very accessible, and entirely fascinating.
This book was quite beautiful – yes, an emotional read, and not always an easy one, but overflowing with hope, tremendously uplifting, and totally unforgettable. I recommend it very highly.
Praise for The Phone Box at the Edge of the World
‘A message of hope for anyone who is lost, frightened or grieving. Beautiful.’ Clare Mackintosh author of After the End and I Let You Go
‘Beautifully written, sensitive and evocative, it paints a picture of an inner and outer world that is infused with both tragedy and hope. It moved me to tears and made me want to speak my own secret thoughts in the phone box at the edge of the world. Absolutely breathtaking and stunning.’ Christy Lefteri, author of The Beekeeper of Aleppo
‘Incredibly moving. It will break your heart and soothe your soul.’ Stacey Halls, author of The Familiars and The Foundling
‘Before I got started, I already loved the phone box at the edge of the world. But then I loved everything else. Especially the beautiful prose, powerful but held back, like grief. And the characters – emerging blinking from their tragedies, hurt and hesitant – but ultimately hopeful. It was a joy to read. Mesmerising! Can’t wait for more people to have the chance to read it.’ Joanna Glen, Costa shortlisted author of The Other Half of Augusta Hope
About the author
Laura Imai Messina was born in Rome, Italy but has been living in Japan for the last 15 years. She works between Tokyo and Kamakura, where she lives with her Japanese husband and two children. She took a Master’s in Literature at the International Christian University of Tokyo and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The Phone Box at the Edge of the World has been sold in over 21 territories.
About the translator
Lucy Rand is a teacher, editor and translator from Norfolk, UK. She has been living in the countryside of Oita in south-west Japan for three years.