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

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I fell in love with this absolutely beautiful book and have immediately gone out to buy a copy for my collection. I’m a widow, so a book that addresses love and loss so eloquently speaks to me emotionally. It is devastating, but also uplifting and life enhancing at the same time.

The Japanese tsunami in 2011 is something that has lived long in my memory, maybe because it was captured so comprehensively through filming on mobile phones and CCTV. I remember staring at the TV screen in a strange mix of awe and horror. It was the first time I had fully comprehended the power of such a huge tidal wave. I had always thought a tsunami was exactly like the painting by Hokusai where a single huge wave sweeps over the coastline then stops. I have lived next to the River Trent for my whole life, and my father who is a land drainage engineer showed me a large Aegir one autumn and explained that a tsunami is like a huge wall of water that doesn’t stop. Seeing the footage from Japan really brought that home to me as whole coastal towns were simply washed away in a series of waves reaching up to 128 feet high and encroaching up to 10 km inland. I think I watched it so many times because I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of the disaster. This author took this event and brought it down to a human level, so we can see the effect of this life changing disaster on the Japanese people, but also show us that heartbreak and loss is universal.

Yui is living the terrible aftermath of the tsunami where she lost both her daughter and her mother, her past memories and hope for the future wiped out in a moment. As she tries to make sense of this loss, she carries out day to day life quietly and on the surface, keeping her deepest feelings within herself. It’s like living under a veil or fog where people can’t reach you. Whilst doing her radio show she hears about a man who keeps a telephone box in his garden, where people can go and say the things they need to say to lost loved ones. She wonders if this could really console people, to speak down a disconnected phone line and let those unspoken words go into the ether? Could it console her? If she had the chance to speak, what could she say to her daughter?

She travels out to the garden at Bell Gardia, but can’t bring herself to go inside. However, she does meet a man who has and spoke to his late wife, who died leaving him with a young daughter, Hana. He explains that he gets to tell her about the plans he has for their daughter as well as normal everyday things he was so used to telling her. This is one of the things many bereaved people miss, that ability to come home and share your day with someone. The silence can be deafening. So, instead of using the telephone, Yui travels to Bell Gardia every month and meets Takeshi for lunch. He becomes the person she chats to as they share their grief and their hopes for the future. Slowly they start to message each other back in Tokyo, just little messages about their day and how they’re feeling. They become each other’s person, the one they touch base with every day. However, this brings its own complexity, because feelings are starting to grow between the two of them. Their fledgling relationship is so tender and fragile. Falling in love during grief is so complicated. Love lifts our heart and makes us hopeful, while grief makes us look back and brings sorrow. The heart is being pulled into two directions at once. There’s a strange survivor’s guilt on both sides; Takeshi is developing tender feelings for a woman who is not his wife, while Yui is starting to feel attached to a young girl who is not her daughter.

Inbetween this beautiful story are interludes that seem unrelated to the main story. However, they are integral to the experience of the tsunami. These are washed up fragments of people’s lives appearing in the narrative, in the same way that debris from the tsunami washed up as far as North America years later. Some of them belong to Yui – parts of a book she once bought Hana, a list of her favourite Brazilian music. There are also receipts, descriptions of clothing, random memories that remind us this is not just two people’s experience. There are millions of other stories out there, just as tender and full of sorrow.

This is a beautiful, moving meditation on love and loss. The story is tentative, even the dialogue is delicate. It’s like a fragile piece of lace, held together by tiny threads, but creating a beautiful whole. If you’re looking for action and plot twists this isn’t your book. At times it’s like reading poetry. However, if you have ever lost someone you will find common experiences and universal feelings about life moving on. Simply a stunning piece of writing that I will treasure.

Published by thelotusreaders

Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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