Clunky but likeable surprise hit from Japan that offers a rather unique and whimsical take on the good old time travel trope.
Time travel is a popular scenario in science fiction, but in Kawaguchi’s book it happens more in a way of magical realism rather than hardcore sci-fi, where you generally expect rules that make some sort of sense. What if there was a quaint old cafe, unchanged for decades, where a humble cup of coffee could give you a chance to travel back in time? But before you get all excited about visiting the dinosaurs or killing Hitler, consider the many seemingly arbitrary rules attached. You can only time-travel from one specific seat in a cafe, and can’t budge from it while in the past. Whatever you do in the past will never change the present when you return. And finally, you must finish your cup of coffee in the past before it gets cold, or you’ll be stuck in the magic seat forever.
With these limitations in place, you’re left with time travel on a very small and deeply personal scale, as a way to revisit an important moment in your life or see a lost loved one. The book explores different scenarios in four interconnected stories – titled The Lovers, Husband and Wife, The Sisters, and Mother and Child – about four people who wish to go back to the past even though they’ll never be able to correct their mistakes or prevent a heart-breaking personal loss.
While the central concept is interesting and charming, I described the book as “clunky” for a reason. For starters, saying that the writing is obvious and simplistic is putting it kindly, though to be fair it’s not clear how much of it is about getting lost in translation from the original Japanese. Other things, like the constant repetition of previously explained information and the author’s bizarre preoccupation with describing what the characters are wearing any time they re-appear can’t be pinned on poor translation. Is it really crucial for a reader to know that a character was wearing a white frilled T-shirt, a tight grey miniskirt and strappy sandals? I wasn’t surprised to learn that this novel was originally a stage play, because a lot in it sounds more like stage directions rather than something that works well on a page.
Despite all this, whenever each story gets to actual time travelling and reaches its emotional climax, the results are affecting and heart-tugging enough to make you forget the clumsy phrasing and pointless diversions. The book has a way of gently shifting focus from one character to another where you feel involved in their lives, and even the painfully spelled-out Big Lesson at the very end couldn’t dampen the overall effect of the stories. In the end, they’re all so easy to relate to: which one of us can’t think of a moment in their past when they didn’t get to say or do something important, and regretted it ever since?