Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Wednesday, November 11, 2020: Maximum Shelf: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World

Overlook Press: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

Overlook Press: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

Overlook Press: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

Overlook Press: Click here to request galleys from the Spring 2021 list!

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World

by Laura Imai Messina

Since Yui lost her mother and her daughter in the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, she has been paralyzed by grief, simply going through the motions of life. But then, via the radio show she hosts, Yui hears about a phone booth in a garden by the sea, which holds a disconnected phone: a peaceful place for people to come and talk to their lost loved ones. Italian novelist Laura Imai Messina (Tokyo Orrizontale), a long-time resident of Japan, weaves Yui's moving story together with those of other visitors to the "wind phone" in The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, her third novel (and the first translated into English)

Thoughtful and tender, full of small daily moments and acts of kindness, Messina's novel is a testament to the power of community (and a bit of whimsy) in moving forward after loss.

Messina's wind phone is based on a real-life phone booth in Bell Gardia, a garden built in 2010 on the outskirts of Otsuchi, Japan. Like Itaru Sasaki, the real-life custodian of the phone booth, the owners of the garden in the novel (an elderly couple known simply as Suzuki-san and his wife) open their property to visitors as a place of healing. On her first visit there, Yui meets Takeshi, a man who has recently lost his wife. His young daughter, Hana, has been mute since her mother's death. During their subsequent trips (which they begin making together), Yui and Takeshi meet others who are grieving and making their own pilgrimages to the phone booth; gradually, they form a kind of community. When another severe storm threatens the existence of the wind phone, Yui takes matters into her own hands.

The book's main narrative thread follows Yui and Takeshi after they meet, but Messina also takes readers back in time to the first frantic, displaced days after the tsunami, when Yui slept in a school-turned-shelter for weeks while searching for her mother and her daughter. Messina's portrayal of the storm and its aftermath is matter of fact and unstinting; she lays out the broad outlines of the tragedy without trying to explain or make sense of it. As Yui begins to recover, she focuses on small details, like the blue plastic picture frame carried everywhere by a man with vacant eyes.

Messina intersperses her spare, lyrical narrative with tiny chapters formed mostly of lists: the contents of Hana's lunchbox, the playlist of songs on a particular evening at the radio station, the clothes Yui's mother and daughter were wearing on the morning they disappeared. These lists of quotidian details offer flashes of normalcy (and sometimes humor) amid the larger narrative of life-altering grief with which the characters are grappling. Some of the details--a paper book cover, an extract from a radio show--seem to have no immediate relevance, while some (like the statistics of tsunami victims, or the dictionary definition Takeshi finds for "family") are quite apt.

Although Yui becomes a faithful visitor to Bell Gardia, for months she cannot bring herself to go inside the booth. She drives down with Takeshi (always eating chocolate to stave off nausea at the first sight of the sea), and converses with Suzuki-san and the other visitors to the wind phone. But she sits in the garden rather than enter the phone booth; she's not sure what she would say to her mother or her daughter, given the chance. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, she and Takeshi tentatively begin to merge their lives. Yui gets to know his daughter and his mother, and begins spending evenings at their home, even changing her work schedule at the radio station. Both she and Takeshi struggle to make their peace with the loss of those they have loved, but they help one another to move forward, one day at a time.

Though Messina's narrative is mainly focused on Yui and Takeshi, she draws thoughtful, nuanced portraits of several secondary characters--gentle, wise Suzuki-san, who maintains Bell Gardia; Shio, a teenager and aspiring medical student who visits the garden to talk to his father; Takeshi's mother, who must adjust to Yui's sudden presence in her family's life. The narrative gives glimpses into these characters' inner lives and the sometimes surprising effects their actions have on one another. All of them are, in some way, dealing with unimaginable loss, and their quiet presence in each other's lives helps them to keep going and even work toward a hopeful future.

The wind phone is perhaps an unusual response to grief, but both in the novel and in real life, it provides a place for grieving people to have necessary conversations, to acknowledge their sadness and other complicated emotions, and--perhaps--to let their grief lift and float out over the sea. --Katie Noah Gibson

Overlook Press, $25, hardcover, 416p., 9781419754302, March 9, 2021

Overlook Press: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

Laura Imai Messina: Loss and Lightness

(photo: Andrea Gherardi)

Laura Imai Messina is an Italian author who has lived in Japan for more than a decade. She teaches comparative literature at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World, originally published in Italian as Quel che affidiamo al vento (What we entrust to the wind), is her third novel and the first translated into English. (This interview has also been translated.)

What was the inspiration for The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World?

I came across the real-life Wind Phone [in Otsuchi, Japan] in 2011, when I had already lived in Japan for many years. I was struck by the magic of a place that really exists, where people can pick up the handset of an unconnected device to talk to their dead [loved ones]. It is a unique place in the world, where the human voice is entrusted to the wind, so it can reach those who are now on the other side. It is a very important place because loss affects all human beings, all over the world. Sooner or later we fall behind. Anyone who has loved one day finds himself there. And yet the story continues. The Wind Phone is that place: where thought becomes word, and the word weighs less on a person's heart or their thoughts. You have to put your feelings into words in order to talk to another person, and the Wind Phone helps [visitors] make that leap.

Have you visited the real-life phone booth yourself?

For years, I have postponed my trip to the Wind Phone. As I wrote in the final note of the book, I personally have experienced profound hesitation about going there. I justified not going for years by saying I had too much work on, it was too far from Tōkyō, that the area damaged by the 2011 disaster was too hard to access. I even blamed it on my pregnancies, breastfeeding, and tiny children running around. The truth is that I was afraid of taking something, of stealing time and space from someone who needed it more than I did.

The novel includes not only the prose narrative, but bits and pieces like the contents of a child's lunchbox, and meaningful quotes. How did you decide to include these?

Language is a fruit that we must peel, gradually, to reach the essence of what we need to say. I first wrote everything I saw in a river of words, from the typhoon that attacked Whale Mountain to Takeshi's declaration of love for Yui. Then I began to "dry it out," so that the concreteness of the characters' stories would tell the story. After about four weeks, the interludes arrived. I immediately felt that they were capable of giving a particular rhythm to the narration, of lightening everything that could be heavy, or emotionally impossible to face. They are forays into reality, often devoted to joy, despite the tragedy that lies behind the protagonists' lives. Life is much more joy, in general, than we end up remembering it. Eventually I started cutting scenes, and the book became half its length. I didn't do it too reluctantly, because I knew that all the scenes not included in the novel served to help me understand who these characters were. I have infinitely loved taking care of the language of the book: it seemed to me that I was looking after a growing child.

How does the novel address grief and moving forward after loss? The characters all deal with it in different ways.

I wanted to focus on love [in the book] because love requires a good dose of trust, in the other and in oneself. On the other hand, when one has suffered a bereavement, a great sorrow, it is difficult to allow oneself the opportunity to be happy again, because the most sensitive part of oneself has been entrusted to another. And a great and satisfying love leads to precisely that happiness: desired, but also much feared.

The theme of the book is universal. We live, therefore we die. We form relationships, we fall in love. So we [also] lose, but there doesn't have to be gloom in telling it. I wanted to talk about the mourning process, but also [to share] the joy of being in the world, the feeling we have of physically entrusting parts of us to the people we love, the courage it takes to let them go here, to meet them again there. I wanted there to be lightness and a lot of love. This novel moved and excited publishers all over the world, so much so that the translation rights were acquired months before its publication. I think it was thanks to this lightness that accompanies the book. --Katie Noah Gibson

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