Today, I’m delighted to welcome Anna Hollingsworth from our Shiny New Books reviewing team to my blog. Anna, who works in journalism, has been reviewing a wide range of fiction for us for several years (click here to be taken to some of her reviews).
At Shiny, we only really like to include books that the reviewer can really recommend, say 4/5 stars and above (unless a particularly important book etc), so there are some books which are decent/ok reads but not special, so we don’t feature them at Shiny. The book below is one in case, and as Anna took the time to write it up I offered to post her review here instead. That said, this novel and its predecessor (which I reviewed here) have been hits, so you may think differently. Over to Anna…
Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot
Who hasn’t come across the question of what they would change in the past if they could travel back in time? Kill Hitler, those concerned with the big picture might say; the more personally motivated might opt for being Leonardo da Vinci’s (or DiCaprio’s) bestie. Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes the well-worn question and reworks it into a more interesting one: would you travel to the past even if you couldn’t change anything? Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the second novel about the Tokyo café where customers ponder exactly this.
Funiculi Funicula is hidden away in a backstreet, and on the surface it’s just an ordinary, if quirky, café. The owner Nagare is a single father to an eccentric six-year-old, and his enigmatic cousin Kazu works as a waitress there, listening to the gossip of loyal customer Kyoko and bringing books to the mysterious woman who always occupies the same seat. Anyone can get a good coffee, but those in the know are aware that Funiculi Funicula has time travel on the menu as well.
There are, however, strict rules about this as the customers — and the reader— are repeatedly reminded: you can only meet people who’ve been to the café, you need to get back before your coffee gets cold or you turn into a ghost, you cannot get up from your allocated time travel chair and you cannot change the past. In a series of short stories, we meet people who take up the offer: there’s a restaurant owner who wants to meet his dead friend whose daughter he has raised as his own, there’s a struggling potter who couldn’t attend his mother’s funeral, a detective who never got to give a birthday present to his wife, and man with only months to live who wants to travel to the future to see if his girlfriend has found happiness.
It’s all very sweet and wholesome: amends are made, lovers reunited, emotional reunions had and peace found. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is definitely a feel-good read, but unfortunately it doesn’t go much beyond that. The novel feels like travelling through time to revisit well-worn storylines. The time travellers are copies of overused narratives; a terminally ill man and his lover wanting each other’s happiness isn’t exactly unique, and you won’t exactly jump out of your seat when you discover that someone wants to hide their personal bankruptcy from their family. The familiar is undoubtedly comforting, but sometimes you just need a bit more to steer away from being too clichéd.
A bigger problem is, though, how the prose stumbles over itself. Kawaguchi spells out the obvious as if it was a new discovery: “Psychological trauma is not visible on the outside, and such wounds do not easily heal” (well I never!) or “People lie for different reasons. Some lies are told in order to present yourself in a more interesting or more favourable light; others are told to deceive people.” There’s tedious repetition. With each customer, the same details about the time travel rules are gone through, as if the author has forgotten that the reader has a separate consciousness from the characters. When Kazu’s waitressing outfit is described twice in four pages (black waistcoat and sommelier’s apron), you feel like you’re being forced to drink cold coffee.
To top off the clunkiness, there’s an odd start to one of the chapters, when Kawaguchi launches into an explanation about onomatopoeia in Japanese and the linguistically tenuous idea how Japanese and Samoan may be related because of their similar sound systems. Anyone with more knowledge about linguistics will cringe; everyone else will find the story disrupted in a way that doesn’t justify itself.
There’s so much that could be done with time travel, and Before the Coffee Gets Cold has so many ingredients to be more than a clunky, clichéd feel-good read. As it stands, it just hasn’t been brewing for long enough.
Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café (Picador, 2020) paperback original, 192 pages.
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