Picador, 2019, 227 pages
If you could go back, who would you want to meet?
In a small back alley of Tokyo, there is a café that has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. Local legend says that this shop offers something else besides coffee—the chance to travel back in time.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a set of four connected stories set in the same cafe. Time travel is just the plot device; this isn't science fiction. It's much closer to that dread overused phrase "magical realism." From this cafe, you can travel back in time, if you sit in a particular seat at a particular table. There is never an explanation for this. Nor for where all the rules came from: why only if you drink coffee, why can't you leave the seat, why do you have to drink your coffee before it gets cold? (There is actually a consequence explained: because if you don't you will be trapped as a ghost in the cafe, like the current ghost, a woman who is eternally sitting in that seat drinking coffee and reading her novel, except during the few minutes each day that she gets up to use the restroom. That's when someone else can use the time traveling chair. But it's never explained why.)
The "limited time travel" is a device to tell four stories about people with different problems. There's the career woman who wants to go back in time for another chance with the boyfriend who left her. There's the wife who wants to speak to her husband before Alzheimer's began destroying his memories. There's the woman who wants to speak to her sister who died in a car accident. And in the last story, there's a little twist where we learn you can also travel to the future (why not?) and a woman destined to die in childbirth wants to meet the daughter she'll never know.
These are sad, twee stories. Most descriptions of this book use words like "poignant" and "heartwarming." Yes, they are kind of bittersweet, but I found the whole thing a bit a bit smarmy, these scenarios framed around the time traveling coffee shop that just exists to tell these stories.
The translation from Japanese leaves a lot of what is probably more poignant and heartfelt in Japanese a bit stiff and artificial. Some knowledge of Japanese culture helps here and there. For example, when the career woman is described as so pushy that she will actually argue with her boss or older coworkers, it helps to know that in Japan, that's a really big deal, much more outrageous than in Western workplaces. A lot of the dialog ends with characters' voices just trailing off, or answering questions with "Eh?" or "Ah, I see..." Which in English sounds inane, but I remember just enough Japanese to know that these are often verbal cues that subtly express things you wouldn't pick up from a straight English translation.
These stories were okay, but nothing special or particularly memorable.
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