My second book in February’s 12 in 12 Challenge is set in Japan. I have to confess that I am pretty sure that I have never read a book set in Japan before and that I know very little about Japanese culture. This is also a fantasy type novel so it is difficult to know what is typical of the country and what has been introduced for the sake of the story. Not that any of this matters as this book is a little gem in its own right.
The book is Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot. I actually bought this new, albeit at an offer price, because I was intrigued by the premise and had heard good things about it. It is a short book.
The novel is set in a basement café and the vast majority of the story takes place there so a lot of the story is conveyed by dialogue and by what the narrator tells you about the characters – there is little action. In this café, if you sit in a particular seat, you can go back in time for a period which lasts until the coffee gets cold although you cannot move away from where you are sitting. There are rules, very carefully created by the author, which severely limit what can happen during these trips into the past. The book has a number of stories of various individuals who travel back in time, usually to meet someone with whom they have some relationship or who is a family member. Initially it seems like what they do and learn affects nothing, because one of the rules is that you can’t change the present, but each of the participants learns that they can, in fact, change their future.
Although this has a fantasy type theme it is very much a work of literary fiction. The different stories are very carefully told to be as spare as possible and I found that it took a little while to tune myself into the way that the story is told. Although the book has a strange premise it is really about people, relationships and the choices we make. I found it a gripping read and was completely captivated by the storytelling. It isn’t a long book but I found that all of it was meaningful.
I highly recommend this novel although I am not sure what it told me about Japan, except perhaps the importance of ritual and family in the culture.