Imagine that I’m feeling pretty smug right now. Not only have I finished another book this month but I’m posting my second book review of the week. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a position to write two reviews in the same week. But I’ve had a productive weekend. I finished The Turn of the Key in a couple of days and managed to get most of the way through this book by Sunday evening. By that time, I was also ahead with my blogs for the week. I wrote my Sunday Review, Tuesday Review, and Book Review in no time. Guys, I think I’m actually becoming productive. All these years that I’ve been talking about it and it might actually be happening. Although, I know for a fact that the multiple reviews in one week won’t keep happening. I may be smug but I’m not delusional.
Who would you visit if you could go back in time? That’s the question at the heart of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s bestselling novel. It is set within a small cafe in Japan that has magical properties. If you sit in a specific chair, you have the chance to journey to the past. Because of this basic concept, Before the Coffee Gets Cold sets itself up to be a different book. The time travel aspect might have unsuspecting readers to believe that this is a science-fiction story. It’s not. This is a book that is interested in people and relationships. The time travel isn’t meant to be about going back in time but about connecting with somebody you love. Getting one more, or one last, chance to see that special person.
The novel introduces us to four people who want to make use of the cafe’s special properties. There is the woman who wants to see her boyfriend on the day he left her, the wife whose husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s, the regular customer who needs one last chance to see her sister, and the mother looking to visit her daughter. All four of the time travellers are at an emotional crossroads and need the journey to help them find their way.
I really liked this novel. As soon as I heard the premise I knew I was going to enjoy it. The time travel aspect gave the novel a quirkiness but it still remained a very grounded novel. Mostly because the time travel comes with so many rules. You can only visit the cafe, you have to sit in a specific chair, you can’t leave your seat, you have to return before your coffee gets cold. It is never billed as something grand and outstanding. It’s simply something that happens and it has to happen in such a specific way. It all feels very Japanese. The whole ceremony of the act of going back in time feels brilliant.
Kawaguchi originally wrote this as a play that received critical acclaim. This prompted the writer to turn it into a novel. This is why the setting never alters, all the scenes are very drawn out, and everything feels incredibly intimate. There are moments when the original stage setting becomes obvious but there is more than enough lush description to make it work. The pace sometimes feel a little odd but, to be honest, I liked it. You feel like you’re really getting to know the characters even if you don’t learn too many facts about them. You learn enough about the and, more importantly, spend enough time with them that you feel connected. And, ultimately, we can all understand the motivations for wanting to go back to see someone we love.
I admit this is a very sentimental novel that might not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s a very Japanese book in that it lays it on quite thick. Also, the rigidity of the rules surrounding time travel might frustrate many. The characters all go back in time knowing that they can’t change anything. They know that nothing they do in the past will have any impact on the present. They are resigned to this but go on with their plan anyway. Again, it might not fit in with Western tastes but at least it prevents any paradox issues arising. This isn’t supposed to be Japan’s answer to time-travel fiction. It’s a story that delves into humanity and the strong connections we make with each other. It is a strange book but beautiful. A delight to read but, I’ll be honest, not for everyone.