Before the Coffee Gets Cold: A Novel

Posted on 02/26/2021 in misc

book cover

I really enjoyed this book, although I'm having a hard time putting into words exactly why. The author, Toshikazu Kawaguchi, is a Japanese playwright and his first novel, based on a play, was written in Japanese and translated into English. The book is charming, and the writing is direct and to the point, but not without its quirks. For example, he tells us what every character is wearing every time they enter a scene. The 4 large chapters of the book feel like 4 acts of a play, and the writing often feels more like he is setting a scene rather than telling a story. It's not a bad thing, just different and probably compounded by the fact that it's a translated text.

The story is just as quirky as the writing. It is set in a tiny out of the way basement coffee shop that stays cool in humid Tokyo summers, even though it has no AC. The coffee shop is run by a husband-wife team and a part time college student employee. There are 4 customers that seem to be there all the time. And one ghost.

Yes, ghost. The coffee shop is a jumping off point for time travel. But only from one certain chair in the shop, and the ghost occupies that chair all day, except for one daily bathroom break. It's her penalty for breaking the rules when she traveled in time. The chair will transport you to that exact spot in the shop at some other time, where you can not leave the chair and you can only interact with people that have been to the coffee shop previously, and happen to be there when you pop in. Oh, and you have to finish your business and your coffee before your single cup of coffee becomes cold, else you become the ghost that sits in the chair.

And nothing you do can change the present.

The rules around time travel kind of reminded me of a Japanese tea ceremony, in that individually they all seem pointless but the sum is something much more meaningful. Reading the book was almost like a meditative experience. There was a certain repetitive rhythm to the chapters that just made everything feel good and comfortable while you were reading.

Through the four chapters the four regulars all take their turn in the chair, all for different reasons but all for reasons centered around loss and guilt. You may not be able to change the present by traveling to the past, but you can change yourself. And sometimes, that is enough.