The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is a poetic novel about a real telephone booth in Otsuchi, Japan, a rural town decimated by the 2011 tsunami. Known as the “Wind Phone,” the disconnected rotary telephone allows grieving family members to speak, in a way, to loved ones who have passed on.
Yui lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami, and in the days following the catastrophe, she lived in a shelter with other survivors. Her existence was confined to a mat, and she was joined in her grief by a man who carried around an empty picture frame, observing the world through its void. As Yui begins to live again while trying to heal from her pain, she hears of the disconnected telephone that carries people’s words to the dead.
When Yui makes her first pilgrimage from Tokyo to the phone booth, she meets a widower named Takeshi along the way. Takeshi’s daughter has gone mute from the trauma of losing her mother. On their first visit, Takeshi goes to the phone to speak to his late wife, but Yui hangs back, hesitant. Yui and Takeshi become friends and travel monthly to the Wind Phone, but still Yui does not speak to her lost family.
Between chapters that follow Yui’s story and the experiences of other grieving people who visit the phone booth, author Laura Imai Messina intersperses bite-size sections that are almost like poems. They have titles such as “Parts of Yui’s Body She Entrusted to Others Over the Years” and “Two Things Yui Discovered After Googling ‘Hug’ the Next Day.” These snippets are lovely breathers, a chance for the reader to marvel at the tiny details that make up a life.
The English-language debut from Messina, an Italian author who lives in Japan with her husband and children, unfolds over the course of many years as a tender tribute to grief and what it teaches us. Healing is not linear, and the ones we lose never truly leave us. It can be unfathomably painful when we’re reminded of our losses, even though remembering our loved ones is often what can heal us. The phone booth is a magical place that not only connects the living to the dead but also the living to the living.