Before the Coffee Gets Cold – by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a wonderful little Japanese fiction about time-travel.

Set entirely in a Tokyo café, local legend has it that you can be transported back in time in the windowless, clockless café. And they’d be right – only there are several rules that must not be broken.

The rules are:

  • The time-traveller must sit in a particular chair, and cannot move from it
  • There is the ghost of a woman sitting in the chair who only moves once a day to the toilet – this is the only time someone can time-travel. Try to forcibly move her and you will be cursed.
  • Whatever you say or do will not alter the present
  • There is a time limit, and you must return before the coffee gets cold, by drinking the entire cup – or you will become the ghost in the chair

The book was written by Toshikazu Kawaguchi as a stage play, which was adapted into a novel, and translated to English by Geoffrey Trosselot.

The novel still holds some theatrical elements in the way scenes are described in detail, painting the picture of the time-travelling café. Each movement and line choreographed so as not to interrupt or distract from another character. It makes the book rather poetic.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is divided into four chapters, or acts. Each chapter follows a different character, each one somewhat interlinked with their predecessor. Each person has a different reason for wanting to travel back in time.

Fumiko wants to travel back to meet her boyfriend, who left Tokyo for America for work, to see if things would change if she told him how she felt. But as per the rules, nothing said or done in the past can change the future.

Kohtake wants to travel back to speak to her husband, who has developed Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognise her anymore. This story really tugs on the heartstrings of anyone who has been affected by the disease.

Hirai had long avoided her sister who was desperate for her to return to the family home, and she wants to travel back in time to see her again.

And finally there is Kei – the only one who travels forward in time – to meet her daughter.

How many times have you been asked, ‘if you could go back in time, where would you go and what would you do.’ With Back to the Future being one of my all-time favourite films, it is a question I’ve pondered on occasion. Before the Coffee Gets Cold explores the reality of this question, and what people truly value as important.

At first, the book is comical, a light-hearted quick read, but as you turn each page, a new layer is peeled back, revealing the bittersweet nature of the story. Kei’s chapter is particularly emotive, portraying how powerful a mother’s love is. It’s unusual, heartwarming and unlike anything I’ve ever read in terms of creativity and prowse. I’d really love to Before the Coffee Gets Cold performed on stage. Grab yourself your own cup of coffee and let this book transport you through time – you can probably read each story before your coffee gets cold.

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