In Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, we are taken to a small café in Tokyo called Funiculi Funicula. It had once attained a small degree of viral fame because of its special offer: an opportunity to travel back in time. But the hype has since died down, and it’s hard to find anyone who has actually done it — apparently, the arrangement has rules that are enough to make you question if the time-traveling is worth it.
In this café, there’s a ghostly customer who never leaves: a woman in white, reading a book, drinking one cup of coffee after another. When she leaves her chair to go to the toilet, a customer can take her place, order a cup of coffee, and travel to the past. But they can never leave the chair, and they must finish their coffee before it gets cold, or they’ll become the resident ghost.
The book follows four little tales: A pretty girlfriend wonders why she’s been left behind. A carefree woman regrets how she treated a dutiful little sister. A middle-aged nurse wants to talk to a husband who, in the present, is forgetting her. A mother and daughter, having never had the chance to meet, both sit in the haunted chair.
For some readers, the whole thing could be annoyingly cryptic. We don’t know the story of the ghost in the chair. Why does she need to go to the toilet? Is she still there when the café is closed? How much does the café staff know about this magical phenomenon?
Finally, the one rule that puts people off is that “there is nothing you do while in the past that will change the present.” Which begs the question, what is the point?
Before the Coffee Gets Cold definitely isn’t a technical, well-knit wonder of a book. Some readers call it overly sentimental, and I kind of agree. But overly sentimental can be enjoyable. If you’re looking for some comfy, lightweight fiction to read on a rainy weekend, then this is perfect. It’s a cuddly old cardigan of a read, and it belongs in my library now.
The author succeeds in creating the liminal, timeless atmosphere of a basement coffee shop. The sights and sounds of the busy city are muted. This is Tokyo, but you might as well be on the moon. The baristas talk to you if you talk to them, but otherwise, it’s a wonderful place to be alone.
By the way, since this is my first ever book review on Talaisipan, I may as well mention now that I’m not a literary critic, and I don’t want to be. I can find deep enjoyment in books that I later find out are not crowd favorites. And while I agree that some books suck, many critics totally miss the point simply by setting expectations that the author never meant to meet. A silly book is only bad when it pretends to be anything else. They call Jane Austen shallow because her novels completely ignore her era’s sociopolitical milieu. But why wouldn’t they? She wrote chick flicks, pretty cute and clever ones at that. You don’t watch Mean Girls and say it’s nothing like Schindler’s List.
The books on my review list, though, are ones that I’ve read, and will read, more than once, more than twice. Like this one.
In Funiculi Funicula, where you can’t tell the time of day, where Ethiopia-sourced beans are slowly brewed, where it always feels safe, we are reminded that life-altering realizations can take place even if nothing around us changes. All before a cup of coffee gets cold.
Perhaps not ironically, my own coffee (a citrusy, berryish Kenya brew) has gone cold while I wrote this review. If my mother is reading this, no, I don’t have a physical copy of the book yet; I have an e-book. Buy one yourself.