Tabitha Bird – the emporium of imagination

Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, Australia 2021

Intimacy and loss are the stuff of this compassionate story – love and grief. Taking as its inspiration the true story of the Wind Phone, a real place, in Iwate Prefecture, northeast Japan, the emporium of imagination is a deeply touching piece of magical realism set in Boonah (also a real place in Queensland).

Tabitha Bird talks about the emporium of imagination

The Wind Phone was also the focus of that elegant and eloquent novel The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina, which I reviewed last year.

It was installed by Sasaki Itaru in the garden of his house at the foot of Kujira-yama, just next to the city of Ōtsuchi, one of the places worst hit by the tsunami on the 11th of March in 2011. The garden is a peace park and place where anyone can come to communicate with their dead. See https://bell-gardia.jp/about_en

The notion of finding a way to speak to the beloved departed and by doing so, to alleviate guilt and obtain a path to a second chance of happiness is at the heart of Tabitha Bird’s novel. Through the lives of her quirky cast of characters, we live the emotions of those caring for the dying or mourning the dead, of those living half-lives after their relatives loved or other, have gone. In entering the emporium (and this book) we are invited to ask what our imaginations are capable of by way of repair and restitution.

The emporium which appears by magic in Boonah brings its current caretaker Earlatidge Hubert Umbray, who lost loved ones in that very tsunami, in search of the new shopkeeper. Specific qualities are required for these two roles, notions which become clear as the story unfolds.

People who dare to enter the emporium see whatever it is they imagine and desire no matter how bizarre, eccentric or idiocentric, . They receive small handwritten messages asking them to receive a call from a departed loved one. Gifts are delivered by a magical cat Pickled Onions, gifts which evoke happier times and memory, and again invite the recipient to bravely step out of grief and into self- forgiveness.

What we also witness in this cunningly crafted tale are acts of courage and compassion, stories of long held guilt and crippling sadness and in the end a healing expiation. But, the reader is also treated to the lightness of a gentle humour, an astute observation of the workings of the child’s mind (notably the two Enochs) and the child within us as adults.

The author is playful in her narration but never glib, never acerbic. We can believe utterly in this magic and in the kindly persona of the writer which we are given in the pages of her book. She is honest and laid bare in her own story of grief and guilt during the dying time of a grandmother. The story is an invitation to self-forgiveness and acceptance. What has gone before does not need to hold us in its thrall whether it be our own acts or those of others. The knowledge of this release allows us and the characters of this story to leave when their time has come or to carry on with hope and joyfulness.

I loved this book.

Thank you to Penguin for the review copy and Tabitha for the pleasure of a conversation about your work.