Synopsis: 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…
As a sucker for a good time travel story, I was drawn to this novel for its science-fiction elements but the novel is firmly focused on the human nature of time travel. In fact, the ability to travel backwards and forwards in time seems to be a natural phenomenon in this book, given little explanation and treated as a quirk of the coffee shop, which adds to the charm of the novel. The book itself is broken down into four distinct sections which allows Toshikazu Kawaguchi to develop the characterisation both the visitors to the café and its owners over time. Characters that appear in the background in the earlier chapters become more prominent and important to the story as it progresses, allowing the writer to foreshadow events and create a sense of continuity across the stories as the focus shifts between protagonists.
While time travel is a central plot device to the story, it is not used to fix problems and instead acts as a way for the characters to work through psychological issues like grief, doubt and regret. By sitting at a special seat within the café, customers can revisit past conversations and gain closure by saying those things that were left unsaid. Kawaguchi explores a range of different relationships through the book such as young lovers, old married couples, sisters and mother-daughter, using the method of time travel to allow these couples to connect in better ways. The novel is definitely a tearjerker and is tinged with tragedy, specifically in the later chapters, but it manages to be uplifting and cathartic too through the ability to go back in time and address missed opportunities.
Written originally in Japanese, the novel does feel culturally different to most Western writing and this is most evident in the dialogue, which feels more formal and stilted compared to English-speaking novels. This adds to the book’s charm, and gives it a refreshingly different tone. Geoffrey Trousselot does a great job in translating the novel to English, ensuring that the book feels authentically Japanese in tone, and maintains the same emotional beats as the original text. The novel feels reminiscent of The Time Traveller’s Wife in the way it makes use of time travel, moving away from the idea of reversing mistakes and creating paradoxes to instead highlight the emotional benefits as the characters use the service as a form of therapy.
The book has already been adapted as a live-action drama in Japan, but I could also see this novel brought to life as a Studio Ghibli movie in the same vein as its more dramatic tales such as, Only Yesterday and From Up on Poppy Hill. Fans of those movies will definitely enjoy the reflective emotional beats of this novel, with a faint hint of the supernatural to drive the narrative forward. In fact, one element of the novel that felt slightly underused was the appearance of the spectral lady who guards the seat used to travel in time – while she was introduced as a spirit who’d gotten stuck in time due to failing to leave the past before her coffee got cold, I felt there was plenty of potential in the character to be developed further. I know that there is a sequel book out there (yet to be translated) so perhaps there is more about that character in there.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a wonderful introspective examination of grief and regret, making use of the concept of time travel in a fresh and satisfying manner. Rather than going back to undo past mistakes, people use the opportunity to come to terms with the consequences of their prior actions. At times devastating, but ultimately an uplifting and hopeful read, this is a novel that will stay with you long after you have finished it. Definitely one for fans of Japanese culture with its enticing, romanticised view of Tokyo.
Score – ★★★★
Before the Coffee Gets Cold is available in paperback and hardback formats from Amazon and all good book stores or as a digital eBook via Amazon Kindle. It is also available as an Audible audiobook, and can be downloaded free as part of its 3-month trial promotion.