In the vast, steep garden of Bell Gardia, begins this new novel, a woman secures a protective tarp over a phone booth and wraps it in plastic. She’s alone and determined in the rain and raging wind, fearless in her driven need, and when the typhoon arrives, it rips apart the landscape. The reason for her presence in such danger becomes the heart of this quietly absorbing story.
Laura Imai Messina’s inspiration for The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World draws from a real phone booth in northeast Japan, one of the places worst hit by the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that happened 10 years ago today, March 11, 2011. The natural disaster created enormous waves that swept away entire communities, set off the meltdown of nuclear reactors, and took thousands of lives. The phone booth was not an outcome of the tsunami: it was set up earlier by a man who needed to talk to his dead cousin. Inside, he installed a disconnected rotary phone. Ever since the tsunami, however, thousands have come to talk on the phone to their lost, dead loved ones.
Much of this has been documented by the news media, including NPR in This American Life and the BBC, but Messina’s fiction reveals what those factual stories cannot — the intricate privacy of moving forward and the discovery of pathways into new joy despite unimaginable loss. Also, Messina approaches the topic of grief from its complex singularity, not the expected cycle of getting through it.
Yui works as a radio host in Tokyo. She lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and when she hears about the garden phone from a caller on one of her talk shows, she knows she must go to it. The caller says, “…your voice is carried away with the wind.” On her first visit, she meets Takeshi, a surgeon, also from Tokyo, who lost his wife to cancer and whose daughter ever since stopped talking. Over the next months, and then years, the two travel together to and from Bell Gardia, a distance of several hours, creating a friendship that gradually advances into much more. They meet other visitors to Bell Gardia, learn their stories, and become close with Suzuki-san, the garden’s caretaker. The connected thread throughout is the unfurling drama of Yuri’s struggle to see herself apart from her loss and of Takeshi’s increasing love for Yui.
A telephone booth in a garden, a disconnected phone on which you could talk to your lost loved ones. Could something like that really console people? And what would she say to her mother anyway? What could she possibly say to her little girl?
What happens lacks fictional sensation, all that what-if excitement to thrum a plot, and yet Messina keeps the pages moving, the main characters Yui and Takeshi lustrous, the sub-characters purposeful, and the story’s essence challenging, for at its heart is that phone booth and its interior intensity, which grabs with philosophic intention and pensive curiosity. Consider the angry man whose son took an idiot’s risk and lost his life. Or the story of Shio, a medical student who regularly talks to his father on “the wind phone.” His father is a fisherman locked away in a trance-like state ever since surviving the tsunami. It is the book’s most iconic story of the disaster, illustrating the massive wall of water carrying Shio’s father in his boat, like a soaring bird, over city streets and buildings.
The boat transgressed every reasonable boundary and was marooned on the top of a building that had been gutted by the detritus and water. And there it remained.
Every other chapter in this illuminating, heartfelt novel is a list, such as a music playlist, or meaningful aphorisms, or personal details — objects Yui bought for her daughter, clothes she and her grandmother were wearing the day they died, Shio’s favorite Bible passage. These informative sprinklings provide context and vivid enhancements that deepen our knowledge about the characters. They also offer an important but seemingly casual abeyance, directing our attention to the simplicities we overlook or take for granted but that create a life’s foundation and meaning.
The narrative culmination arrives when the story returns to Yui trying to save the phone booth from the typhoon’s powerful wind. Why she goes to Bell Gardia during the storm, what took place the night before, Takeshi’s involvement, and her fate bring the story to a close.
Some books are too beautiful, too highly persuasive and satisfying to precisely capture in a review. The risk is to over-write in trying to achieve that sense of it, and end up dulling down the magic, which I don’t want to do. That said, I can’t end without mentioning the nameless picture-frame man from the tsunami shelter, whom Yui meets during her weeks of displacement. She cannot forget him, this person who holds up an empty picture frame through which to see life. (Its dimensions listed in one of those informative, quirky chapters). She believes the picture-frame man is not a tsunami survivor, but a mentally challenged individual, and when he disappears from the shelter, she realizes nobody wonders why or asks about him. She tells Takeshi what it felt like to have this odd man looking at her through his frame, of how “she had felt seen, truly looked at, for the first time in weeks.”
Later, Yui realized she had learned another important thing in that place of confinement: that silencing a man was equivalent to erasing him forever. And so it was important to tell stories, to talk to people, to talk about people. To listen to people talking about other people. Even to speak with the dead, if it helped.
The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina is translated from the Italian by Lucy Rand and published by The Overlook Press.