Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Welcome to another book review, friends. I’ve been on a serious J-lit (Japanese literature – learnt that was an actual abbreviation recently) kick ever since reading Tokyo Ueno Station a couple of months back, and I won’t lie to you: I’ve no intention of stopping any time soon. I haven’t quite cracked what it is about Japanese novels that’s got me hooked, but I’m going to keep reading and thinking until I figure it out.

For Bookshop Day 2019, I popped to Waterstones to pick up a copy of The Memory Police and a lovely bookseller at the tills recommended Before the Coffee Gets Cold as a fellow J-lit lover. So naturally, I had to bring that bad boy home with me too. The more the merrier, right? Whatever. I’m running with it. Run with me.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Genre: Urban fiction

Length: 224 pages

Publisher: Picador

Other bits: translated by Geoffrey Trousselot; Japanese bestseller, first published in 2015 as Kawaguchi’s debut novel, but only recently translated into English


At some point in your life, you’ve probably asked or been asked the question: what would you do if you could travel back in time? This, in a nutshell, is what the novel is about. But this is completely different from any time-travel narrative I’ve ever experienced so far for a number of reasons, not least because no matter what the characters do or say when they go back in time, nothing actually ‘changes’ in the present.

Enter, the Funiculi Funicula cafe and its time-travelling coffee.

My thoughts

Right off the bat, I really enjoyed how matter-of-factly the time-travelling coffee is treated by everyone once the rules are explained. We never find out how or why this is possible, but you’re so immersed in the four micro-narratives you probably won’t notice that until you’re writing a review about it later.

The novel comes off a little awkward initially but it works given the context – a woman is being awkwardly dumped by her somewhat awkward boyfriend. Yikes. The characters, though a little camp at times, will have you emotionally invested in their respective time-travel stories. These narrative threads are expertly woven together to produce a tale of magic realism gently hemmed in with that classic Japanese flair for propriety and protocol, and I’m very much here for it.

Her heart swelled in anticipation. She looked around the cafe. As there were no windows, there was no way of telling night from day. The three old wall clocks with their hands pointing in different directions didn’t tell her the time. But something must have changed. She looked desperately around the cafe, searching for a sign that she had gone back.

from Before the Coffee Gets Cold

There’s Fumiko Kiyokawa, a salary woman desperate to revisit a talk she had with her boyfriend. Kohtake, a sweet nurse dedicated to finding out what’s in a mysterious letter when her husband, suffering from Alzheimer’s, can no longer recognize her. The vivacious Hirai, estranged from her family and longing to apologize to her younger sister for leaving her to shoulder the responsibilities that come with their parents’ business. We also meet Kei, who ventures into the future to find out whether or not her unborn child stands a chance at life.

These different narratives are slowly, tantalizingly, fed to the reader, flowing and shifting focus from one protagonist to another, and another, as each one takes centre stage and the rest of the room blurs into the background. As you read, it slowly dawns on you that you’re a protagonist in your own life, but you’re also a background character in someone else’s narrative.

I’ll level with you. I cried a bit at the end. In a good way.


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