It is rare I pick up a novel I’d consider contemporary fiction (even if there is an element of time travel). Rarer still that I have read translated fiction. But this book found me when I need it most, and the experience of reading Before the coffee gets cold has been a heartwarming and emotional experience. If you enjoy novels that are an insight into the human experience and character driven then this is the book for you.
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 …
Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?
Told in a series of four short fictions set in a small basement cafe, we meet a cast of characters who’s lives are forever interwoven by the exchanges in the cafe. I was absorbed by the insights into their varied lives and experiences. In The Lovers we open on Fumiko and Goro. Fumiko has wrongly assumed her long term boyfriend’s invitation to meet for a serious conversation was so he could propose. Instead Goro awkwardly dumps her without much of an explanation as to why. Hours later he leaves for a new job in America.
Desperate to understand, a week later she returns to the cafe. Having heard the stories of traveling back through time she comes in search of answers. I won’t spoil the outcome of that small adventure but The Lovers captures a very real and empathetic look into what we think we deserve and the decisions we make when one is in love but doesn’t know the best way forward.
Husband and Wife made my heart ache and cry as I sat in bed reading. An incredibly beautiful yet devastating look at the effect of Alzheimer’s on a loving couple, told from the perspective of the wife, grieving the moment her husband no longer knows who she is. This particular story in the book I could not stop reading despite how emotional it made me feel. Kohate is an admiral woman in the way she adjusts and reframes the life she will now have with her husband Fusagi.
I took a bit of a break before reading the final two stories The Sisters and Mother and Child. Both of these tales were emotional gut punches that examined the repercussions of the choices we make. Choices for ourselves and our families, what it means to honour them and live with the knowledge some things cannot be changed. I’ll admit, Mother and Child really got to me. The anguish and devastating choice that Kei makes for herself and her family had me wishing there was a way to give her a happy ending.
But that isn’t the point of Before the coffee gets cold. It’s not about using time travel to change the future, give everyone a positive and perfect life. You can’t. It doesn’t work like that. But by using time travel as a device, Kawaguchi does a wonderful job at examining the human experience. Its high and lows. Its pain and joys. Where there is the dark there is light, and always, some element of hope. But not always in the way you would think it go.
These stories are small moments in time. They capture something very human and honest about what it means to live and to love.
REVIEW SCORE: 95%
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and have since recommended it to several people I know. I’ve also gone and bought the sequel which I can’t wait to dive into. Emotional but beautifully written, this translated fiction novel is a must read.