Monday, March 8, 2021

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

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World
The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, trans. Lucy Rand
The Overlook Press
Publication Date: March 9th, 2021
Hardcover. 416 pages

About The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World:

"The international bestselling novel sold in 21 countries, about grief, mourning, and the joy of survival, inspired by a real phone booth in Japan with its disconnected “wind” phone, a place of pilgrimage and solace since the 2011 tsunami.
When Yui loses both her mother and her daughter in the tsunami, she begins to mark the passage of time from that date onward: Everything is relative to March 11, 2011, the day the tsunami tore Japan apart, and when grief took hold of her life. Yui struggles to continue on, alone with her pain.Then, one day she hears about a man who has an old disused telephone booth in his garden. There, those who have lost loved ones find the strength to speak to them and begin to come to terms with their grief. As news of the phone booth spreads, people travel to it from miles around.Soon Yui makes her own pilgrimage to the phone booth, too. But once there she cannot bring herself to speak into the receiver. Instead she finds Takeshi, a bereaved husband whose own daughter has stopped talking in the wake of her mother’s death.Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World is the signpost pointing to the healing that can come after."

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World ended up hitting me so much harder--in the best way possible--than I expected, and I would be lying if I said it didn't make me tear up and/or cry multiple times while reading it. This is a story of grief, loss, discovery, love, family, finding peace--there's really no accurate way for me to describe it other than that it's a truly beautiful story that brought me so much comfort and emotion in all the best ways possible. 

Before diving into the story and review itself, I feel it would be useful to explain the phone booth itself. The phone booth in the story is based off a real phone booth that was set up in the same area as a way for those grieving the loss of friends and family in the tsunami to pick up the phone and speak with their lost loved ones. Many people who died during the tsunami were never actually found, so many families were left without any real closure, and I think this also acted as a helpful way to have that final time and revisit them. Since the phone booth installation's, it has, of course, grown a lot in popularity and people now visit from all over the world to have a chance to "speak" with their loved ones that have been lost in any way.

This book follows Yui in the years after the catastrophic 2011 tsunami in Japan (the ten year anniversary of which is coming up on March 11th). Yui, a single mother, lost both her mother and her daughter in this tragedy and has spend the years since trying to continue on with her life and come to grips with everything that has happened. When she one days learns about the phone booth, she decides to visit. Although she is not yet able to pick up the phone, she does meet a man named Takeshi who has been left a single father of a young girl after losing his wife in the tsunami.

The story generally follows both Yui and Takeshi on their journeys with grief, but at the same time it also includes small vignette-like stories of other people who visit the phone booth. When Yui and Takeshi visit, they often happen upon a myriad of other grieving people who have chosen to visit the phone booth to speak to a loved one lost, and it is through these encounters that we, the reader, get to hear stories of others who also have lost people, both in the tsunami and otherwise. I really loved geting this glimpse into the lives of others and experiencing their own versions of grief and methods of dealing with it.

This is what I would describe as a "quiet" book, with a very steady pacing that is meant ot be read slowly and deliberately. This isn't a book to be rushed through, but one to be experienced and appreciated for what it is. As might be expected, there is a definite atmosphere of melancholy and grief, but at the same time there is a constant underlying current of a hope for something more. After every chapter featuring Yui or Takeshi's POV are small one or two page chapters that feature some sort of list or dialogue extract, such as "Favorite Topics of Conversation Between the Old Woman of Kujira-yama and Her Dog" and "How to Make Children Feel Happy to Be Alive," and I really loved these chapters. Some of them were on the sadder side, but I like the little bit of playfulness that came with them and how that added to the general uplifting nature of the book and its creativity.

I don't  know if this book will end up striking a chord with everyone, but for me its exploration of grief was so raw and relevant that this book has ended up meaning a lot to me. There were so many things, from minor phrases to long explanations, that were so completely on target for how I often feel in regard to grief and what loss is like--all the small things you remember, how you see, view, and handle the ideas and reality of loss, and so much more. The idea of this phone is so beautiful and feels like such a comforting and helpful idea, it's definitely that I would love the opportunity to visit myself someday. 

Overall, I've given The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World five stars! This was such a beautiful and meaningful book to me and it's one that I know will stick me for a long time yet. I marked up so many passages in my copy that it feels thoroughly loved, which is just how I like it. Definitely pick this one up if you're looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but full of character and emotion.

 *I received a copy of The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*   

Buy the book: Amazon | IndieBound


  1. I'm tearing up just reading your review, so I can only imagine what emotions actually reading the story would bring up.

  2. I've never heard of this phone booth but wow, what a lovely idea. Leave it to the Japanese to have such a profound idea like this😁