Title: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World
Author: Laura Imai Messina
Publisher: Abrams – The Overlook Press
Publication date: March 9, 2021
One Sentence Summary: When the tsunami on March 11, 2011 took her mother and young daughter, Yui struggles to move forward, until she hears of a disconnected phone booth people use to speak to those they have lost and meets Takeshi, a man with a young daughter who lost his wife.
In an attempt to get myself reading more Asian and Asian-inspired books, I requested this one from NetGalley, and was approved! I thought it might be interesting and was intrigued by the idea of people using a disconnected phone booth to talk to the people they had lost as a way of dealing with grief. I did not expect for this book to make me feel so deeply, to look at my children and treasure their lives any more than I already do, and find a place of hope and healing.
Rooted in Grief
Yui lost her mother and daughter in the March 11, 2011 tsunami that struck part of Japan. Afterwards, she does little more than go through the motions of life, only coming alive when hosting her radio show. Until a man calls in and talks about the disconnected phone booth at Bell Gardia that offers a way for people to speak to their loved ones. There, the winds carry their messages to those that have been lost.
On her way from Tokyo to Bell Gardia, Yui encounters a man who has lost his wife and whose young daughter hasn’t spoken since her mother died. Takeshi has decided to travel to the phone booth to speak with his wife, and they decide to go together.
Yui and Takeshi begin to travel to Bell Gardia together every month, forming a friendship that goes a long way to healing both of them.
I really enjoyed The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, but it also felt like it was split between two different kinds of stories. The first half focused on Yui and Takeshi and their grief at losing their loved ones. It felt heavy and sad, but the blooming friendship between the two provided a sweet counterpoint and a flourish of hope. I loved that it introduced other minor characters, some who recur and some who are only mentioned in passing later in the story, but they all had grief and the phone booth in common. It highlighted the many ways people deal with grief and how the loss affects them. The second half, though, read more like a love story and I was disappointed the heavy grief themes were overridden by it. I couldn’t help the feeling that the second half was trying to erase or mute the first half in favor of simply moving on. At the same time, it does highlight the need to move on, the hope of finding something good to love again, the joy that comes after the pain. I just wish the second half had felt more like a continuation and evolution of the first half instead of a turn around the corner.
This book was written in a really interesting way. Between each chapter was something of a little bite of life. There were mundane lists, an item on exhibit, a short conversation between characters. They were in some way related to the story and I loved how they helped bring the characters to life a little more, showcased how normal they were. At first they were a little weird, but I came to enjoy and appreciate them. They were good reminders that people actually lived through the many losses detailed throughout the first half of the book and that their lives aren’t that different from our own.
Polite and Restrained
As The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is set in Japan, all of the main characters are Japanese. They all had some measure of emotional restraint, which made it a little difficult to get to know them. They felt almost sleek and too polite and proper, but, reading deeper, there were bits and pieces almost like wisps that spoke to deeper emotions. The second half especially deep dived into Yui and a bit into Takeshi, but it also made them feel like they took a sudden turn as the first half focused more on their grief than really developing them. Then the second half hits and the reader really jumps into what they think and feel.
Most of the story is told from Yui’s perspective, so it’s her the reader gets to know the most. She’s restrained, polite, quiet, but she thinks deeply and constantly. Often, her thoughts run away from her, but she seems almost incapable of voicing them, so prefers to find something to run off to. While she seemed kind of cold and distant during the first half, the reader gets to see a woman with deep worries and insecurities in the second half that really make the story roll.
I loved The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World because it’s set in Japan and so unapologetically drops the reader straight into the Japanese culture. No time is taken to introduced the reader to this Eastern culture, which is quite different from Western cultures. Being from an East Asian culture myself, it was almost comforting to find similarities, to find a book that I felt like I got and that got me.
On one hand, it might be a bit alienating to readers who don’t understand Eastern cultures. It is absolutely a full immersion in the Japanese culture, not how various media sources portray it, but as how life actually operates. On the other, it almost felt like home. Close to home as I’m Chinese, but, still, it’s rare when I read a book that just screams Asian and wraps me in a comforting blanket. I felt like I got it and was actually thankful the author didn’t take time out of the story to fully orient the reader to the world.
Beautiful Despite Revolving Around Grief
The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is not a light read. It deals very heavily and very deeply with grief. It really affected me as Yui loses her three-year-old daughter, and I couldn’t help but look at my own three-year-old daughter and want to hug her closer. Her memory of the last time she saw her daughter really struck and stayed with me. Overall, this is a beautiful story. It’s heartbreaking, it’s sometimes hard to read, but it also speaks to moving forward while still remembering, of having hope and finding the drive to live again.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.