by Catriona Fida
Tales from the Cafe is the sequel to Before the Coffee Gets Cold and it largely sticks to the same premise. Before the Coffee Gets Cold is set around a small café in Tokyo that boasts an ability to allow its customers to travel through time. There are many rules they must abide by, including acknowledging that going back in time will never change what happens in the present, and making sure that they return to the present day before their cup of coffee gets cold, or else they will live on as a ghost. These rules, amongst a few others, are the reason why many people decide against travelling through time, yet there are some who are so driven by grief that they are willing to take the risk in order to be reunited with their loved ones for one last meeting.
Tales from the Cafe returns to the Funiculi Funicula café, featuring some new characters and heart-wrenching stories of customers journeying to the past (and future) to meet their lost friends, lovers or family members. Amongst them is a man who goes back to see his best friend who died 22 years ago, a son who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral, and a man who travels back in time to meet the girl he could not marry. What I loved the most about Tales from the Café is that we get to meet new travellers, while also getting to know more about the café’s employees, who were featured in the first book. I was especially drawn to Kazu’s story. We are first introduced to Kazu because she is the waitress in charge of pouring the coffee which transports customers back and forwards in time, yet in this book she is granted a much greater role. Despite her emotionless and stoic demeanour, in this sequel the reader is granted access to her back story, in particular surrounding her childhood and the relationship she has with her mother. Although her situation is far from relatable (this is me trying not to give away any spoilers) I thought her story was heartfelt and handled beautifully.
In Tales from the Café there is an exploration into the rippling effects of grief and how this yearning for closure has led these people to the Funiculi Funicula café. There are moments in this book where characters are forced to face up to their loss in the hope that it may help them move on from it. While it may be considered reductive to argue that happiness is a frame of mind and grief is something that is easily overcome through altering your mindset, I did love how this novella allows for feelings of hope and optimistic reflection. Far from being sentimental, Kawaguchi aims to show that life is for the living and that sometimes it is necessary to face up to grief in order to relinquish feelings of regret or shame that stop you from moving on with life after losing someone close to you.
Translated from Japanese, Kawaguchi originally wrote Before the Coffee Gets Cold as a play and following its success, it was written in novel form. At some points this book does play out as acts and it frequently repeats itself, giving it a theatrical, almost pantomime-like quality. It is this predictability in the writing which makes the narrative soothing to read, but it is also what can make it seem overexplained or drawn out in places. As with the last book, I do believe these stories would work best on stage, however they are still wonderful adaptations in their own right. While the writing is similar to Before the Coffee Gets Cold, there are some subtle differences between the two books. For example, whereas the first book read like a collection of short stories, Tales from the Café felt more like a novella with four intertwining main characters. Some readers may prefer this since it does enable a greater fluidity in the narrative with lots of crossover between the different stories. However, as a big short story fan, I actually preferred how the stories in the first book were standalone and felt I could connect more deeply with each of the characters when the spotlight was on one customer at a time. Ultimately, I think it’s down to personal preference.
As to whether I believe it’s necessary to read Before the Coffee Gets Cold before Tales from the Café, I don’t think it is. The rules of time travel are explained in as much depth as the first book and what you do learn about the café’s staff in the first book can be easily picked up from reading the sequel. It would definitely work as a standalone book, which I believe was the intention with this one anyway. Overall, I felt a lot of nostalgia reading Tales from the Café, but Before the Coffee Gets Cold undoubtedly left a greater impression on me. I think this book was enjoyable, but perhaps I connected with it less because of how similar the structures of the two books were. They are quite alike so it’s hard not to compare. Nevertheless, if you loved the first book and are eager for more, or even if you are entirely new to Kawaguchi’s writing, I’m positive that you won’t be disappointed by this book’s understated elegance and charm.
Tales from the Café (Picador) will be available to purchase from Thursday 17th September. Thank you to Picador for the review copy.