Review

Poignant journey through loss and grief

Italian author Laura Imai Messina.
Italian author Laura Imai Messina.PHOTOS: ANDREA GHERARDI, ZAFFRE

FICTION

THE PHONE BOX AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

By Laura Imai Messina, translated by Lucy Rand Manilla Press/ Paperback/ 400 pages/ $26.77/Available at bit.ly/PhoneBoxWorld_LM

4 stars

One would expect a story based on the March 11, 2011, triple tragedy of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident to dwell, however briefly, on Fukushima - a name with which the disaster is associated, given the magnitude of the nuclear fallout.

But Laura Imai Messina, an Italian author who lives in the coastal city of Kamakura, south of Tokyo, with her Japanese husband and two children, deliberately leaves out any mention of Fukushima in her book, even as Japan continues to grapple with the political and environmental consequences of the nuclear disaster.

The majority of the 18,400 people who died or remain missing are victims of monster waves as high as 14m, triggered by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake.

Messina pays tribute to these lives, swept away in an instant, in the novel, which was originally published in her native Italian and masterfully translated into English by Lucy Rand, who is based in the south-western prefecture of Oita.

Grief and loss manifest in different ways for different people, and many have sought relief in the Wind Phone, an actual disconnected rotary phone in a glass phone box in the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Messina bases her novel on this phone, which is located in a non-profit garden known as Bell Gardia Kujirayama. Many have made the pilgrimage to the phone box, which is a rallying point for those in mourning, whether or not due to the 2011 tragedy.

Messina's fictional characters, who are relatable in their ordinary ways, do likewise.

There is Yui, a radio presenter, who loses her mother and daughter in the tsunami - and nearly loses her own will to carry on.

In a poignant chapter, Messina writes of Yui reminiscing the birth and death of her daughter: "After the birth she copied out the baby's measurements precisely: 2,739 grams, 47 centimetres long. (After her death) she still found herself counting the months until the next vaccination on her fingers, or writing down something she needed to buy for her."

A widower calls into her radio programme one day, talking about the phone box in Iwate that he uses to talk to his late wife.

Yui decides to make the trip herself. While she cannot bring herself to speak into the receiver much, she gains a spiritual connection with the venue.

Italian author Laura Imai Messina.

She meets Takeshi, a surgeon whose three-year-old daughter Hana has stopped speaking since the death of his wife. They soon become friends.

Each chapter in the book is interspersed by short interludes that can act as fragmented memories, be it a list of favourite conversation topics, a list of snacks bought at a convenience store or what Yui's mother and daughter wore when they died.

Where the book is exceptional is how it takes the reader on a contemplative journey through the depths of grief and eventually acceptance. But it could have been better paced and have more rounded plot lines for its supporting characters.

Nonetheless, it is a delicate, meditative ode to loss and grief and, in turn, resilience and hope. Messina writes: "Time may pass, but the memory of the people we've loved doesn't grow old. It is only we who age."

If you like this, read: Picnic In The Storm by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda (Corsair, 2019, $18.95, available at bit.ly/PicnicStorm_YM). Motoya finds the whimsical in the everyday in this series of 10 surreal short stories and one novella, where strong female lead characters grapple with struggles such as loneliness, relationships losing their spark and the loss of one's sense of identity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2020, with the headline 'Poignant journey through loss and grief'. Subscribe