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Toshikazu Kawaguchi's 'Before the coffee gets cold'

Given the chance, would you return to the past?

“At the end of the day, whether one returns to the past or travels to the future, the present doesn't change.”

Hidden in an alleyway, there is a basement cafe. From the outside, it is small and uninteresting. From the inside, the only interesting thing about the place was how empty it is. Apart from the cafe regulars, the cafe rarely houses many new visitors. If new visitors come to the cafe it is for one purpose - time travel.

But there are conditions. If you decide that you wish to travel in time, the present will never change. You can only travel in time to meet someone who had visited the cafe; you can't leave your seat, and you have to return to the present before the coffee gets cold.

* * *

Kawaguchi invites us into the lives of four individuals and their time travelling adventures. The novel is separated into four stories:

The Lovers: A young woman, Fumiko, falls in love with a young man but he leaves for America. He leaves her. Fumiko travels to the past in order to confront him.

Husband and Wife: A husband who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and a wife, Kohtake, who returns to the past to pay him a visit and to receive a letter before he forgets she exists.

The Sisters: Two sisters; the eldest estranged from her family and the youngest having to pick up the mantel on her behalf. When tragic circumstances arise, travelling to the past allows for a rekindling of the connection these two sisters have.

Mother and Child: A woman travels to the future to meet her unborn daughter, knowing that it will be the only time she spends with her.

Kawaguchi writes the stories and lives of these individuals with an immense amount of empathy that is not uncommon in novels written by Japanese writers. I, and I'm sure the majority of people who read the novel, were thrust into the intimate lives of these characters, feeling every emotion Kawaguchi spills onto the page, desperately wanting the conditions of time travel to change in order for the character's fates to be rewritten.

“I was so absorbed in the things that I couldn’t change, I forgot the most important thing.”

The novel is filled with romantic, lyrical prose, woven together by a soothing rhythm. Kawaguchi's ability to shift between magical descriptions and beautifully heartbreaking narrative cements this masterpiece in the list of my favourite novels of all time. Kawaguchi uses the magical theme of time-travel to explore humanity; human connection, loss, suffering and romance, an exploration so perfectly executed that I spent hours replaying the moments of the novel in my head long after I'd closed the book and put it back on my shelf.

* * *

"But Kazu still goes on believing that, no matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.”

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