What would you change if you could go back in time?
In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.
In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.
But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold…
“SHE REACHED FOR HER COFFEE, FROM WHICH ALL HEAT NOW HAD GONE. WITH THE SWEETEST PART OF THE EXPERIENCE LOST, HER MOOD PLUMMETED FURTHER.”
Listen – if you don’t cry at this, you’re a heartless monster.
A quirky, charming and heartbreaking story about a little coffee shop in Tokyo with a special seat that can send people through time. Before the Coffee Gets Cold combines the intense focus of a short story collection with the rich characterisation of a traditional novel. Each chapter spotlights a different customer in the shop and their desire to time travel, but as those same customers make appearances throughout all chapters, the novel feels more grounded and there’s beautiful sense of unity among the patrons as they support each other through their loves, losses and journeys through time.
It’s not so heavy on the science fiction side of time travel. Instead, it’s a clever and insightful look at human weakness, loss and the desire for meaningful relationships. There’s a few barriers to Kawaguchi’s time travel. One being that those who choose to travel in time cannot change history or impact the present regardless of whether they choose to act differently or not. In addition to this, the time travellers can only meet someone who has also visited the café themselves. The rules are both fun and agonising, especially due to the emotional anguish it causes the characters once you learn their reasons for journeying to the past and future.
Each story is rooted in difficult circumstances, packed with misfortune and sadness. Every character that sits in the seat is emotionally broken, desperate, and their decision to turn to time travel is clouded with a sense of missed opportunities and what ifs. There’s nobody who hasn’t wished for do-over in life, and while that’s not what Kawaguchi’s café offers, it provides something far more important. Closure. What follows are four poignantly beautiful brief encounters where the café customers confront and redress their losses, grief, hurt and mistakes, even despite knowing they will not be able to change anything once the coffee goes cold and they return to the present.
Whether it’s the final moments of break-up, revisiting the precious time before dementia takes hold of a loved one or saying goodbye to a family member who was taken far too soon, Kawaguchi captures the heartbreak of being human.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold is both sweet and sad. Yet, it’s hopeful – just like real life! Time travel isn’t a magic wand that vanishes all problems, but it was touching to see how it was utilised in the novel to give people a second moment to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘goodbye’. It’s a gentle story that haunts you long after your tears have dried.
Sit back, relax, and grab a cup of coffee! I can guarantee you’ll have sped through this one before the coffee gets cold! (See what I did there! 😜)