Title: Before the Coffee Gets Cold
Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi (Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
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What would you change if you could go back in time?
In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold . . .
(Taken from Goodreads)
What I Liked
This is a very short novel, a little over 200 pages. I always keep an eye on Japanese literature, being one of my favourites, and when I heard about this novel coming out I immediately purchased a copy. I mean, caffeinated time-travelling? Sign me up!
The first story, The Lovers, does a very good job at setting up the scene and characters for the entire novel. In four chapters (or “Acts”), the novel encompasses all the main familial relationships between two individuals: The Lovers, Husband and Wife, The Sisters, and Mother and Daughter. The very first sentence – “Oh gosh, is that the time?” – immediately encapsulates the novel’s overarching theme of fleeting time, as well as the protagonists’ wish to recapture lost time.
“Even if you return to the past, reveal your feelings, and ask him not to go, it won’t change the present.”
Fumiko reacted impulsively to Kazu’s cold hard words. “That sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?”
– Before the Coffee Gets Cold
My favourite story was Husband and Wife, featuring Kohtake and her husband Fusagi. I related to this story the most because one of my close family members is affected by Alzheimer’s. Kohtake’s reaction to her husband’s condition was understandable and accurately portrayed; her love for Fusagi is pitched against her medical formation, resulting in a state of helplessness that drives forward the narrative. It’s a story full of love and empathy that resonated deep within me. Initially Fusagi seems to be set up as the one who will travel back in time, but I was pleasantly surprised when this was not the case.
“I can’t let the coffee go cold,” she said and brought the cup close to her mouth.
“So I forget? I forget you?” he mumbled, looking down.
Staring at him, she noticed how forlorn his expression was now. She had never imagined that he could look that way.
– Before the Coffee Gets Cold
The novel overall is a poignant, heartfelt analysis of the age-old question, “what would you do if you could go back in time?”, done through the recounting of four very different life experiences. However, the heavy limitations imposed on time-travelling carry deeper philosophical connotations. The most notable of all is that no matter what happens in the past, the present won’t change. I enjoyed this take, because it highlights the present and the people living in the “now” rather than focusing on grief and regret. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is an ode to the present and and individual’s endless potential to shape their future. The book is about moving forward, not looking back. Time won’t change, but people will.
Nothing about Fusagi changed, but Kohtake came to enjoy her conversations with him…
The present hadn’t changed – but those two people had. Both Kohtake and Hirai returned to the present with a changed heart.
– Before the Coffee Gets Cold
To comment on something other than the story, I have to admire the production and design teams’ work on the cover. The blue shimmer effect is simple and clever – tricked me into thinking it would be embossed. Really loved the aesthetic and the composition.
I think that the original Japanese cover was brownish (to portray the cafe’s sepia ambiance) and without a cat, so I would be very curious to know what motivated the change!
What I Liked a Little Less
Kawaguchi clearly comes from a theatre background; the novel is in fact an adaptation of a 1110 Productions play by him. The writing feels very much like stage directions, emphasising dialogue, movement and sometimes clothing. All characters are introduced in the first “Act” and the narrator is omniscient. Because the story originally was meant to be acted out, certain emotions or explanations are not given verbally but through empathy and body language; the experience of a spectator is different from that of a reader, simply because the former is, in some shape or form, part of the action that is unfolding in front of them. I felt that, in order to compensate for the difference in experience, the narrator over-explains feelings, thoughts, and reactions. This happened particularly during emotional, pivotal scenes, which unfortunately pulled me out of the moment.
This is one of those novels that made me wish yet again that I spoke fluent Japanese. I’m sure the original prose had its own rhythm and flow, but it is somewhat lost in translation. Which is not to say the translation isn’t beautiful in its own right – because it is! I felt there was some redundancy and repetition which – while still in line with the overarching theme of time – became a little boring for my taste.
The book started off with a positive story – Fumiko’s – about two lovers seeking closure. Kohtake’s story focused on her love for her husband in the face of adversity. After that, however, the last two stories focused on death. And true: other than being one of the main sources of regret, death is The Ending of time and is thus in line with the novel’s theme. But I think I enjoyed the first two stories more because they did not involve death. They involved living people and their futures, they spoke of potential. Kei’s story put a new spin on it, in that she travelled to the future to find inner strength and courage for her daughter. However, Hirai’s story was predicable and somewhat cliché for a time-travelling novel, especially after how flamboyantly her character was built. I had great expectations for her story, but unfortunately these fell flat for me.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, but not to everyone.
Other books like this: If you liked the time-travelling aspect of this novel, I would recommend The Time-Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
(Link redirects to Goodreads)