“Phone Box at the Edge of the World” by Laura Imai Messina

Laura Imai Messina Laura Imai Messina

Inspired by a real telephone box located in the north-east of Japan comes The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, a novel about Yui, a woman who lost her mother and daughter in the 2011 tsunami and is forced to navigate her grief as well as the life that lies ahead. 

A radio host, Yui first heard about the wind phone when she was moderating a discussion on grief. A caller, who had also lost a loved one in the 2011 tsunami, described the phone box with a phone doesn’t work; there’s no connection but the caller says that “your voice is carried away with the wind” and when he speaks to his wife he feels

 

myself becoming the person I was before, my wife listening to me from the kitchen, busy preparing breakfast or dinner, me grumbling that the coffee burned my tongue.

 

Yui is intrigued and makes the drive from Tokyo. Along the way, she meets Takeshi, who lost his wife, and whose young daughter, Hana, is mute following her mother’s death, and together they find Bell Gardia, the garden “on a hill in the middle of nowhere” with the wind phone.

As the pilgrimages to the phone box become a new routine, Yui and Takeshi’s lives are further entwined as they, and the characters they meet, each deal with grief—and with hope—in different ways.

 

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, Laura Imai Messina, Christy Lefteri (trans) (Overlook Press, March 2021; Manilla Press, June 2020)
The Phone Box at the Edge of the World, Laura Imai Messina, Lucy Rand (trans) (Overlook Press, March 2021; Manilla Press, June 2020)

Written in Italian and published as Quel che affidiamo al vento, the English translation was done by Lucy Rand. Rand’s translation is fluent and seamless; she captures the lyricism and meditative quality of the writing with care, a feat made more impressive given that there’s also a distinct Japanese sensibility (the author has been living in Japan for the past 15 years).

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World is powerful and moving, thoughtful and evocative. Messina writes with both clarity and restraint, with the ability to reveal much in a single, compressed paragraph. In an early description of Yui, Messina writes:

 

Yui had long dark hair that was blonde at the tips, as if it were growing from the bottom up. She had stopped dying it when her mother and daughter were swallowed by the sea. Instead she got it cut a little shorter each time, until, eventually, it looked like this, a fallen halo. The colour of her hair, the contrast between the yellow and its natural black, had ended up being a sort of log of her grief. Like an advent calendar.

 

The process of death, grief and the afterlife—Yui wonders “if, perhaps, the dead people we remembered in life here, weren’t in fact holding hands over there, if they had ended up getting to know each other, making new memories that the living were completely unaware of”—occupies much of the novel, but Messina deals both with the profound questions as well as the, perhaps, more practical moments. Take, for example, Takeshi, who early in the book reflects upon his new expanded role as a sole parent.

 

“I watch mothers in the street, in parks, at the supermarket, and I try to steal their secrets. I want to know how you make a child talk, how you make them feel happy to be alive.”
      “Oh, but nobody knows that!” Yui would reply instinctively later that evening, turning to look at him.

 

Longer chapters are punctuated by shorter ones, some written as lists (“Ten things plus one that Hana and Akiko loved doing together”), others as fragments, a single word, or an in-depth look and what had otherwise seemed like a secondary observation. These ultimately add to the experience: revealing a relationship through quieter moments, serving as a break in the tension or offering a different lens to reflect upon the previous chapter.

There is a stillness and quietness to the book that makes each movement all the more meaningful. The words carry a weight that makes each sentence feel intentional; there’s no fat to trim. Moving and heart-breaking, Yui’s story—and that of the Wind Phone—is equally uplifting and heart-warming.


Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.