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For years I have secretly believed that coffee shops are a place of magic. From the aromatic smell of coffee to the hustle and bustle of the people, magic seems to be encapsulated in the space of the coffee shop. In Before the Coffee Gets Cold Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot) takes this a step further, the coffee shop becomes a vehicle for time travel. The magic of the coffee shop is not just atmospheric it is real.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold centres around Funiculi Funicula, a coffee shop where myth becomes reality and you can travel back in time. Only being able to travel through time is not that simple, to be able to do so there are a series of oddly specific rules you have to follow. These rules are more complicated than the most time travel narratives (they are even more complicated than the genie’s rules in Aladdin). You must sit in a certain seat (which is inconveniently occupied), you cannot move from the seat, you can only meet people who have visited the coffee shop, you cannot change the future, and most importantly you must finish the coffee before it gets cold to be able to return. These rules mean that only the dedicated actually go back in time.
Instead of following a single character, the book includes four interconnected stories of people making the hard choice to travel through time. Whether it is a lover wanting to be reunited with an ex, a wife wanting to see her husband pre-Alzheimer’s, a sister wanting to take a missed opportunity to see her sister, or a mother wanting to meet her daughter, all of the stories come together thematically to pose some key questions. Would you back in time for such a short amount of time? Would you go back knowing that nothing could change? And most importantly, the book asks the question: what is the point of time travel?
The interconnected stories combine to leave a lasting imprint. While science fiction is overly concerned with grand narratives, chases through time and adventures, Kawaguchi brings time travel back down to a human level. Before the Coffee Gets Cold changes the focus of time travel to instead focus on the complex relationships between people. It is in many ways a simple book; it is set in just one place and it follows only a few characters. In this time of high science fiction, it is bold to do something so grounded in real emotion and something intended to make you think.
Whether you like coffee, time travel, both or neither, this is a book for you. In fact, this is a book for everyone. If you don’t typically like time travel narratives and want to give the genre a go, this is the book for you. If you don’t like literary fiction, this is a great place to start. If you’ve never read a translated book before, then this a very accessible one. Before the Coffee Gets Cold transcends genre, I truly believe that anyone could find something to love in this masterful book.