Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translator – Geoffrey Trousselot

It takes courage to say what has to be said.

I recently ventured into a bookstore for the first time since COVID and proceeded to go into what can only be described as a book frenzy. I was only looking for one particular book but wound up adopting six. Half were this series. When I picked up this book I didn’t think it would be coming home with me. Then I learned it contained two of my very favourite things: coffee and time travel.

‘Please send me back to the past!’

Cafe Funiculi Funicula opened in 1874. It’s small, there’s no air conditioning and, at Nagare’s insistence, only serves mocha. If you sit in one specific seat, though, and follow a very specific set of rules, you can travel to the past.

The Rules

🪑 You can only meet people who have visited the cafe.
🪑 Nothing you do when you’re in the past will change the present.
🪑 You have to sit in a specific seat to time travel and you must remain seated when you’re in the past.
🪑 You have to drink the entire cup of coffee before it gets cold.

After my initial excitement at finding a time travel book I’d never heard of before, I settled in to read the first of the four stories contained in this book.

The Lovers had me questioning all of my life choices, primarily my rashness in buying three books in a series I knew nothing about other than their blurbs. Had I only read this story, I probably never would have wanted to read the other books. It made me so mad!

A week ago, Fumiko’s long term boyfriend, Goro, told her over coffee he was moving to America for work. When he was on his way to the airport! If he was my boyfriend I’d be incensed! No way would I want him back. Fumiko clearly sees this situation differently than I do because she’s our first time traveller. I questioned more than one of Fumiko’s life choices; she has a limited time in the past but decided to add milk to her coffee, making it cool even quicker and shortening her time there. Ugh!

In the first page it’s said that Fumiko is Goro’s “girlfriend of three years” but later it’s said (twice) that Fumiko met Goro two years ago. I wondered if three years was a typo. Then, because time was so important in this book, I questioned if the discrepancy was simply two people with different perceptions of time in their relationship. Maybe the relationship felt to Goro like it dragged on a year longer than it actually did?

Despite my early frustration, I persevered. I enjoyed the second and third stories more than the first and by the time I finished the fourth story, I wanted to continue with the series and reread this book to see what details I may have missed the first time around.

In Husband and Wife, Fusagi has a letter in the present that Kohtake hopes to receive in the past. I wondered if Kohtake received the letter in the past and brought it back with her to the present, would that result in there being two letters in the present? Kohtake tiptoes around her conversation with Fusagi in the past, which disappointed me.

In The Sisters, one sister goes back in time to speak to her sister one last time. I loved how the mystery visitor to the cafe in this story helps complete another story.

Mother and Child made me cry and is the main reason I’m remembering this book with fondness rather than my initial disappointment.

My favourite character was Hirai, who fascinated me. She seemed to openly delight in Fumiko’s misery and has a backstory I learned more about throughout the book. I most want to learn the full story of the woman reading the book.

I had some time travel question marks.

Some travellers returned to a time when their past self was at the cafe. Encountering yourself in the past is generally a time travel no no. None of our travellers meet their past selves so I wondered whether the future self replaced the past self in this world.

Why doesn’t everyone get the stick that sounds the alarm just before the coffee gets cold? That would be so helpful.

One of my big takeaways from this book isn’t the details of any one story but the concept of emotional gravity, which was explained in a beautiful way and holds such truth.

Water flows from high places to low places. That is the nature of gravity. Emotions also seem to act according to gravity. When in the presence of someone with whom you have a bond, and to whom you have entrusted your feelings, it is hard to lie and get away with it. The truth just wants to come flowing out. This is especially the case when you are trying to hide your sadness or vulnerability. It is much easier to conceal sadness from a stranger, or from someone you don’t trust.

I haven’t read many books that have been translated from Japanese but the ones I’ve encountered have a gentle quality to them. They don’t seem to be in a hurry to get where they’re going and I don’t feel any urgency when I’m reading them. It’s like I’ve been invited to witness a snippet of someone’s life and I leave with a sense of calm, regardless of how emotionally charged the content is. I’m not sure how that works but I’ve started seeking it out.

About the cover image: The seat that transports you through time is upholstered in moss-green fabric on the seat and back. I wish that had matched one of the seats on the cover.

Handy hint: Pay attention to the background characters and the details of what’s happening outside of the main storyline. They may be relevant later in the book.

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.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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 …

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?

Our Wives Under the Sea – Julia Armfield

Miri’s wife was supposed to be gone for three weeks but was missing for six months. Biologist Leah, engineer Matteo and marine ecologist and conservationist Jelka were conducting research for the Centre for Marine Enquiry but things didn’t exactly go to plan. 

“I think,” she says, “that there was too much water. When we were down there. I think we let it get in.” 

Hypochondriac Miri thought she’d never see her wife again. Now Leah has returned but the Leah who left is not the one that returned. 

The problem, of course, was that nothing was wrong, aside from the fact of the obvious. 

With the narrative alternating between Miri and Leah, the author explores the history of their relationship and the incomprehensible changes in Leah. 

“How will we ever explain this” 

The deliciously unsettling cover image and quotable beginning set my expectations unreasonably high. I was ready for creepy and claustrophobic. I wasn’t expecting so much of the story to be about the relationship between the wives. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this book (I did), only that it wasn’t the read I thought I was signing up for. 

It isn’t that her being back is difficult, it’s that I’m not convinced she’s really back at all. 

The author really captured the feeling of being alone in the presence of others. The pain that accompanies loss, whatever form it takes. The struggle to hold on to what no longer exists. The resistance against letting go. 

“I think,” Juna says after a pause, “that the thing about losing someone isn’t the loss but the absence of afterwards. D’you know what I mean? The endlessness of that.” 

You will find answers in this book but not all of them. If there’d been even a teensy bit more of a focus on what happened in the depths of the ocean, I would not have been okay with this. At all. 

Because I became invested in the aftermath, I was able to sit more comfortably in the ambiguity. That’s not to say that I’d turn away anyone who wanted to spoon-feed the rest of the answers to me.

This book is really quotable, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up from my review. The first sentence, though, it’s a doozy. I’ve seen it quoted in so many reviews already but it’s what sucked me in so I have to share it too. 

The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness. 

Now, this is not important in the scheme of things but it’s still running through my head so I’m passing it along to you: Miri wonders why so many people keep bringing her coffee. I’m wondering how I can get more people to bring it to me.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realise that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of salt slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.

The Cat Who Saved Books – Sosuke Natsukawa

Translator – Louise Heal Kawai

‘You know, I’ve been thinking about books.’ 

I absolutely love books about books! This one was all the more interesting to me because, not only does it feature a used bookstore and bookish missions, the missions are led by a talking cat!

Tiger, a ginger tabby, casually shows up at Natsuki Books in the week after Rintaro’s grandfather dies. It turns out this feline, who’s not backward in coming forward, needs the bookish assistance of hikikomori Rintaro. 

‘We’ve come to free your books.’ 

Together, this unlikely team enter a series of labyrinths to save books from those that don’t treat them with the reverence they deserve. 

‘Helping people may not be my forte, but when I hear that books need my help then I’m ready.’ 

I was so ready to tag along for these magical quests in aid of the written word. I was anticipating the fun of confronting readers who perpetrate bookish crimes like failing to return them to their owners and the owners whose books are sad because they’ve been patiently waiting in the TBR line for years already, yet their owner refuses to stop buying more.

The actual confrontations were less exciting than I’d anticipated and the talking cat wasn’t as much of a novelty as I’d hoped. 

I found some bookish quotes I loved. 

‘A cherished book will always have a soul. It will come to its reader’s aid in times of crisis.’ 

I really enjoyed thinking about what it is about books that makes them so extraordinary and how they impact on the lives of readers. 

Unfortunately, though, there was a disconnect that I was unable to resolve. I’d hoped this would be a book I’d be raving about to anyone who’d listen, but it fell flat for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Grandpa used to say it all the time: books have tremendous power. But what is that power really?

Natsuki Books was a tiny second-hand bookshop on the edge of town. Inside, towering shelves reached the ceiling, every one crammed full of wonderful books. Rintaro Natsuki loved this space that his grandfather had created. He spent many happy hours there, reading whatever he liked. It was the perfect refuge for a boy who tended to be something of a recluse.

After the death of his grandfather, Rintaro is devastated and alone. It seems he will have to close the shop. Then, a talking tabby cat called Tiger appears and asks Rintaro for help. The cat needs a book lover to join him on a mission. This odd couple will go on three magical adventures to save books from people have imprisoned, mistreated and betrayed them. Finally, there is one last rescue that Rintaro must attempt alone…

The Cat Who Saved Books is a heartwarming story about finding courage, caring for others – and the tremendous power of books. Sosuke Natsukawa’s international best seller, translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.