The Fiction Fox
Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Genre: magical realism, literary fiction
Published: Picador Press, September 2019, (first published December 2015 in the original Japanese)
My Rating: 1/5 stars
“At the end of the day, whether one returns to the past or travels to the future, the present doesn't change.”
I can still sense the bitter aftertaste of disappointment this book left in my mouth. Even though this is my best friends favourite book of all time, it just wasn’t my lukewarm cup of coffee at all. I can keep the “lukewarm part” spoiler free, but in order to discuss what really ground my beans and had me ready for a dark-roast, I’m going to have to spoil some of the books events. Be aware: spoilers under the Ugly-section. Also: I will knock it off with the coffee-puns, don’t worry.
I really liked the take on time-travel this book had. In short, we follow the everyday happenings in a seemingly ordinary coffee-shop in a small back alley in Tokyo. Except when you sit at a specific table, under specific circumstances, this place offers you an opportunity to travel back in time, and revisit or repeat a conversation with a loved one you’d wish you’d handled differently. During your time-travel, you’re confined to your chair and can only stay for the duration that your coffee is still steaming, leaving you with a limited time to say your piece. Before the Coffee Gets Cold chronicles 4 stories, of 4 separate visitors, each on their personal quest for closure.
Time travel can be such a complex maze of paradoxes and by setting these strict rules the author avoids many of these issues. In fact, I often thought of it more as “conversations with ghosts of the past”, rather than time travel. It makes for a great set-up, and one that I’m sure many of us have fantasized about before.
Things fall apart from the get-go, mostly because of the incredibly clunky writing. I first thought this was a poor translation, but I’ve since heard Japanese reviewers saying it’s actually very true to the original style. Kawaguchi originally wrote this story to be a (screen)play, only to later adapt it into novel form. Except little “adapting” was actually done. There’s so much narrative exposition, dry and lifeless dialogue and a complete lack of transitions or cohesion between the four stories. Characterisation was horrendous, with each character having a single character-trait/motivation, or none at all. As a result, the dialogues that form the centre of this book read like an exercise of “dry-reading a stage play” with the character-sheet missing.
The book overall is of course deeply sentimental and is guilty of the bookish-sin I hate most: being emotionally manipulative and written with the sole intent to make the reader cry. If you’re going to tuck my heartstring this blatantly, at least have the decency to wrap your attempts up in an acceptable plot.
All of the above made for a 2-star book, but what truly catapulted this one into 1-star territory was some of the underlying messaging that I really couldn’t get behind. There will be spoilers from this point on, so be warned.
This novel perpetuates and romanticises some incredibly traditionalist views in my opinion, especially in regards to the roles a woman should take within a relationship. These themes are present in all four stories, but I’ll highlight the most egregious examples.
In our first story, a woman relives a pivotal conversation with her (ex)boyfriend. Her take-away from this experience is the realisation that she would’ve been happier had she places her “less accomplished career” (she’s a medical tech and he’s a game developer, so I’m not sure why she’s hellbent on comparing the two) secondary to his happiness. Wife-is-for-the-house, man-for-the-money-trope. Already icky, but I can look past it this once.
In the second story, a woman has a conversation with her husband suffering from Alzheimers, in a time before he lost his memories of her. She comes away with the realisation that she’s utterly content having given up her entire life and career to become his full-time caretaker, because “it’s her natural place as a wife and she loves him so much”. NO, NO, NO, NO! Can we please not romanticise and oversimplify the incredibly complex dynamic of a care-taking relationship in this way?!
Worst offender is the final story, in which a girl travels back in time to speak to her mother who died giving birth to her(?! Makes no sense but don’t question it) to ask her some burning questions. We learn that mum knew from the get-go that she was ill and would likely die in childbirth, yet selfishly and stubbornly continued to ignore health-risks, become pregnant and continue with the pregnancy, in order to fulfil her purpose to become a mum. The novel than praises her as a selfless hero for it.
In my personal opinion: setting a child into the world to grow up an orphan, because you know for a fact you will not be there to take care of it is incredibly selfish. You’re only thinking of your own wishes of being a mum, without considering the implications for the child (growing up without a parent, the survivors-guilt this kid will face etc.). This trope also perpetuates the idea that a woman’s sole purpose and value in life is in producing off-spring, which I deeply reject.
Overall, this book started bad but left a scolding burn of anger the longer I sat with it. I know for a fact there’s an audience out there for this book (again Robin, I’m so sorry), but I personally cannot recommend it to anyone.
Find this book here on Goodreads.