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“If you could go back, who would you want to meet?” This epigraph is simply all that needs to be asked before stepping into the cafe depicted in “Before the coffee gets cold.” Written by former producer, writer, and director for the Sonic Snail theatrical group Toshikazu Kawaguchi, this breakout semi-anthological novel portrays a cafe where it is possible to return to the past.
Toshikazu plays with science fiction and fantasy artfully, outlining a simple and easily comprehensible magic system that gives way to much larger stories of life, grief, and regret. Time travel in fiction is a pesky thing filled with contradictions and complexities, but Toshikazu lays out a system of time travel that is unconvoluted and beautifully simple: there are just five rules. As the cafe’s waitress explains in the book’s first few pages, there is no leaving the cafe in the past, therefore you can only meet whomever has been to the cafe before, and under no circumstances can you alter the present by visiting the past. By removing the possibility of cause and effect, Toshikazu creates a story where the time travel is secondary to the development of characters.
Toshikazu lays out four stories of four travelers that utilize the cafe’s mysterious service. The novel is split into four sections detailing the stories of these travellers, but along the way, the lives of the cafe’s staff are illuminated. As the stories progress, the shifting spotlight is slowly revealing the true subject of the novel — Kazu Tokita; the waitress whose coffee pour allows for time travel.
While the stories that Toshikazu details are character studies that explore grief, struggle, regret, and finding meaning in life, it is Kazu’s story that ultimately ties the patrons of the cafe to one another and unifies the novel. Toshikazu’s theatrical past is evident in his choice to split the novel into four pieces where each act remains situated solely in the setting of the cafe. Each disparate story does not blend into one another besides the presence and involvement of Kazu’s pour and the characters of her life that surround her.
Weaving stories through Kazu’s life slowly chips away at her tough and stoic exterior to reveal the past that she grapples with. Through the dissection of Kazu’s customers’ past mistakes and regrets, Kazu’s sorrows and grievances are also illuminated. It is not simply through the lessons taught by each character that Toshikazu reveals the purpose of the novel, though, but also through the slow burn of Kazu’s story alongside these other narratives. The entire novel is not fully settled until Kazu, to whom the audience has slowly grown attached as one of the only constants in the novel, receives the same treatment as other guests to the Cafe. Solemn and difficult to interpret, Kazu’s impenetrable past is the slowest and most important story that is wrapped only at the conclusion of all four acts.
Toshikazu writes sorrowful stories that somehow still leave you feeling content with their conclusions. As one story suggests, the happiness that we can glean from sadness and sorrow is the meaning that we give to that feeling of sadness. The premise that the present cannot be manipulated by time travel already presents stories of grief as hopeless, but this novel shows that although the past cannot be changed, the future is still malleable and open to shifts in direction. The characters of the stories that Toshikazu portrays accept the rule that the past is unchangeable, but their futures, or the futures of those they influence in the present, are undoubtedly changed by the cafe’s power to time travel.
Toshikazu is able to use a literary trope as complex and convoluted as time travel to reveal our relationships to the past and our obligation to do what we can to make sure the past is not in vain. This charmingly magical novel is about discovering happiness despite the pasts that we desperately want to revisit. Even when we can revisit our past, our future happiness is up to us to discover and create.
—Staff writer Joseph P. Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JosephP_Kelly
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