Book Title: Before the Coffee Gets Cold
Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)
Publication: Pan Macmillan
Publication Year: 2019 (English edition)
Time travel has always been a popular concept used in books and movies, often inspiring one to wonder what they would do if they could travel in time.
‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’ is a novel which revolves around this concept, delving into the experiences of four visitors in a discreet basement café located in a little Tokyo alleyway.
The café, called ‘Funiculi Funicula’, is not just any old café.
Curiously, a special seat in the café has the unique ability of allowing a person to travel through time. Once a day, a person may sit in this particular spot, conjure up in their mind a time they would like to revisit, and have a coffee poured for them which transports them to that specific point.
However, there are a few catches to this bizarre ability, the first of which is that nothing will change in the present. If this isn’t enough to put most hopefuls off of their quest to travel back in time to amend a past error, another setback is that the time traveller can only meet with a person who has been to the café before.
They must also remain in a particular seat in the café throughout their journey, and above all, they must return to the present before their coffee gets cold… or face a dire consequence.
Kawaguchi divides his novel into four sections, with each section focusing on a character’s story and the mistakes they wish to revisit in their past.
The first section focuses on a woman hoping to speak to her ex-boyfriend who left to work abroad. Next, there is a nurse who goes back in time to receive a letter from her husband, whose memory is deteriorating day by day due to Alzheimer’s.
The third section revolves around a café regular who travels back in time to meet her sister for the last time, while in the final section, the café owner’s wife meets the daughter she never got a chance to know.
Despite understanding that their endeavours in the past cannot change the present, the opportunity to express what they had not said before may influence their own lives once they return to the present.
In my opinion, the author used a good range of scenarios, allowing most readers to find at least one of the characters and their stories relatable. It is quite easy to put oneself in the shoes of each character and experience their dilemmas.
It is also relatable in the sense that some people would likely have regrets from their past that they may wish to alter, given the chance.
While the concept of time travel may be fictitious and quirky, the problems and situations faced by the characters are rather realistic.
I found the novel a very enjoyable and simple read with good pacing. The author managed to keep things interesting and fresh throughout the novel by interjecting new revelations from time to time.
In my opinion, Kawaguchi managed to seamlessly shift the focus from one character to another over the four sections, with the other characters switching to become background roles in other parts of the book.
As such, each character was gradually built up even when they were not the central character in a particular section as they were interwoven in every one of the sections.
In a word, I would describe the story as bittersweet. There is a mixture of emotions invoked throughout the book.
Personally, I would have preferred if each section went into more detail, with more on the background of each character as well as the relationships between each other or the person they were visiting in the past.
If this had been done, I believe it would have made the reader even more invested in each character’s story and there would have been a greater connection established between the reader and the characters. While some parts could certainly stir one’s emotions, there would have been a greater pull on the reader’s heartstrings if each character was more developed.
As it is written, I still managed to appreciate each character’s arc to a certain extent.
I also found some parts of the story a little simplistic, but this could be due to the fact that the novel was translated from the original Japanese version. On a positive note, it allowed the delivery of information in a succinct manner, which some readers may prefer over long passages of information overload.
Despite this, most of the novel was quite descriptive, especially in setting the scene of the quiet basement café. As such, it was easy to mentally picture the café and its occupants in the mind’s eye. In my view, it was a perfect setting for the concept of the novel.
Due to the story’s setting in Tokyo and the author being Japanese, there were certain parts which very much revolved around Japanese culture and etiquette, such as the way in which some of the characters interacted with each other. This setting may especially appeal to readers with an interest in Japanese culture, while those who are unfamiliar can pick up a thing or two.
Although not everything is explained about the mysterious café and readers may have a question or two in mind, Kawaguchi provides enough elaboration for the story to move along at a steady pace without bogging down readers with too much technical information.
While missing pieces of additional background information may not appeal to everyone, in my opinion it lends a hint of mystery and leaves a little to the reader’s own imagination and speculation. For instance, why does the café have this time travelling seat in the first place?
I would recommend this book for anyone who would like an enjoyable read which is neither overcomplicated nor too heavy, with good character development and emotional depth. And of course, this book would probably appeal to anyone with an interest in time travel.