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

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

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A delicate and gentle story about loss and recovery.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: June 2020
Publisher: Manilla Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786580399

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In the northeast of Japan, in Inwate Prefecture a man installed a telephone box in his garden. Inside there is an old black, telephone, disconnected, that carries voices into the wind. It is a real place, a necessary place, and I am pleased to see the IMPORTANT NOTE that the author attaches to her story, that the place is not a tourist destination, it is a sacred place, a place that must be left to those who really need it.

And as one of the characters says partway through the story when a typhoon arrives, that particular telephone box isn't the point. The idea of it is the point. And the idea is that we all have something to say those we have lost – no matter how we might have lost them. Many of the lost for whom the Wind Telephone is so important were carried away in the 2011 tsunami, but some of them weren't. People can be lost, even if they are still here. It is a fact of life that we all lose people. We lose them to death. We lose them to their other ambitions. We lose them to other people. We lose them because they lose their fragile hold on this existence and remain here but not here.

What we have to say to them is equally as varied. There is love – of course, there is love and there is longing, but there is anger, there is bafflement, there is hope, there is prayer, there are all the ordinary everyday things that we will never get to tell them again.

Yui is a radio presenter. She hosts a talk show which is how she comes to hear about the telephone. In the Tsunami she lost her mother and her daughter. The father of the daughter is not on the scene. She is alone in the world. She is still dealing with the aftermath, or not dealing with it, which must be the case for so many people.

On her way, she meets Takeshi, who still has a daughter and a mother, but is mourning a wife lost to cancer. His daughter hasn't spoken since her mother was taken from her.

Takeshi goes into the phone box and talks to his wife. Yui walks in the garden and doesn't talk to her mother or her daughter. She looks at the ocean and eats chocolate to hold the nausea at bay. But even in the very first days, she went and looked at the ocean. That isn't explained in the book, to me, it is a refusal to let the beauty of nature be lost to its cruelty.

They continue to visit, and a friendship grows and grows into something deeper.

This isn't a love story as such, it's a story about what love is – about how we express it, the nature of it, and in particular the kinds of love beyond the romantic kind. Love for a child, for a parent, for a friend. Love for strangers. For life. It is, obviously, also a story about grief, about mourning, but ultimately every love story is about grief. The problem with happy ever after is that 'ever after' has a tendency to be quite short. It is the nature of life that we will lose the ones we love – or that they will lose us – and the beauty of life lies at least in part with how we deal with that loss.

There are worse ways than speaking your love into the wind. And your anger. And your everyday.

In parts, it is also a reflection on religion. What it is and what it is for, and what we do instead of it if we have no such beliefs. Maybe it takes an atheist to need a disconnected telephone, where the Buddhist would simply stand in front of the family butsudan and do exactly the same thing. Or an animist/pantheist or whatever else it is I might be to go sit on a beach and speak to the waves.

Although this book is translated from the Italian, which I am guessing is Messina's mother tongue, it has a very Japanese sensibility. I say that blithely as if I would know. I don't. But it feels that way. If the Haiku is the quintessential Japanese form of poetry, then this comes close to being what I would imagine the quintessential Japanese novel to be like. It is fragmentary. There are chapters that read exactly as a western reader would expect a chapter to read…events, narrative, character exposition, emotion, tension, resolution, some or all of that. Interspersed are pages that from the western perspective read like "notes for a novel". Lists of records for a radio show, the numbers of people who died, things bought at a konbini, favourite things a mother and daughter did, phrases said into the wind. Or definitions of a thing, or choices that were made. Or a child's drawing. Sketch notes for scenes that were never written. But I imagine, and I speak from ignorance, that from a Japanese perspective, they might read like poems…not Haiku, but still, condensed moments of story-telling that tell the story as much from what they leave out as what they put it. Less is more. Beauty in fragility and brokenness and mindedness.

This is a beautiful book. And a timely one. It tells a story about the aftermath of a disaster, long after the disaster. It tells of memories of the first few weeks after horror-struck, but more it tells about the years after. If we're not directly affected, we lose sight of the years after that others have to endure. Or survive. Or come through and build something else afterwards. It's an idea that thousands of people around the world are again beginning to have to face. This time not because of one event in one place, but because of a slow progress in all places. That's another reason for the importance of the author note. One telephone box will not be sufficient for the need we all have to speak our love, our pain, our anger into the world. Nor does it need to be, the idea of it is the thing. We all have to find our own place and our own way of speaking into the wind. As I write this review I'm missing mine, I can't get to my beach, but I also understand a bit more about why I need to.

For a factual, equally moving take, on the aftermath of the tsunami, we can recommend Strong in the Rain: Surviving Japan's Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster by Lucy Birmingham and David McNeill

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