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Book Reviews

“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot

Before the Coffee Gets Cold was a huge hit in Japan when it was first published in 2015 and, after translation, has proven to be extremely popular internationally. It includes many tropes of Japanese literature -the focus on family structures, fantastical elements, café culture- and yet, having read a lot of Japanese literature over the last few years I found this novel very slight and a little flat. It felt a bit generic and forgettable to me. It is, however, interestingly structured. The novel is split into four distinct sections, each one focused upon a regular customer in the basement café where the novel is set. Though the cast of characters all appear in each section, each of the quarters is clearly devoted to a particular person or couple. 

The café itself is an intriguing conceit. If a customer sits in a particular chair it is possible to travel back to the past or forward to the future to meet another customer in the same café. Unfortunately, there is an ever-growing list of caveats and rules when it comes to the time travelling seat. Customers may only travel once, cannot change the present and must return before their coffee gets cold. As a magic realist writer, I found this scenario really appealing but was a little disappointed by how Kawaguchi developed it. He never seems to fully exploit or explore the potential of time travel and each escapade resolves much too neatly. The novel’s ending, in particular, feels a little too like a Hallmark movie to be truly satisfying.

The second section of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, is entitled “Husband and Wife” and follows Fusagi, an older Japanese man who has recently been diagnosed with dementia and his wife Kohtake who is a nurse. The scene begins when Fusagi drops into the café to leave a letter for his wife. Kohtake is sitting at a table in plain sight. This is the first time her husband has not recognised her, and she is naturally quite upset. The women who work in the café try their best to comfort their friend. The novel gives the reader an interesting snapshot of how dementia is viewed culturally in Japan. As a nurse, Kohtake insists that she will be able to look after her husband’s physical needs when the illness begins to remove his independence. She will put his needs above her own desires as his partner. Later, upset by the deterioration in her husband’s condition, Kohtake asks to use the time travelling chair to return to a point in the past where her husband was well and unaware of his condition. She’d like to spend a few minutes with the old Fusagi, before his personality began to change. Kohtake does not travel back far enough. She meets her husband at a point where he already knows his diagnosis though he’s carefully hiding his symptoms from her. Fusagi insists that he does not want to become a patient to his wife. He wants her to promise that she will leave him to professional carers when his dementia advances to the point that Kohtake can no longer see him as her husband.

There’s so much potential in this novel. Kawaguchi could have explored the complex power structures and emotional connections inherent within a relationship where one of the partners develops dementia. He could have taken a longer look at the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes to both dementia and how the elderly are perceived. I’d have loved him to fully unpick the huge moral question of whether you’d change the future if you could. Instead, he gives us a charming story about a couple and a magical chair. It’s a neat little dementia narrative and the fantastical elements do not jar but I can’t help but wish we’d been given a little more depth.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold was published by Picador in 2019 

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Book Reviews

“Malcolm Orange Disappears” by Jan Carson

Summarising a book you’ve written yourself is a difficult and quite disconcerting thing to do. Malcolm Orange Disappears was my first published novel and, whilst I’m still quite fond of it and certain characters who appear within its pages, six books later, I can definitely see where it could be improved. The story focuses upon eleven year old Malcolm Orange, whose father has abandoned the family in Portland, Oregon. As he attempts to process this troubling situation Malcolm begins to notice he is, quite literally, disappearing. Malcolm’s mother has found a job as an orderly in a retirement village which comes with accommodation. As Malcolm settles into his new home he begins to befriend the elderly residents and together they go on a quest to stop him from disappearing.

Malcolm Orange is a magical realist text which uses metaphor and allegory to explore the various ways the older people in the retirement village feel as if they too are beginning to disappear. The loss of memory is explored at length. Many of the residents are living with Dementia and can’t remember important parts of their own stories. Malcolm and his friend Soren James Blue help the residents to form a kind of support group in order to capture one aspect of their history before it disappears.

“The People’s Committee for Remembering Songs existed solely for the purpose of remembering songs.” It meets several times a week and allows the residents to collectively recall the important songs which have shaped their identities. This section of the novel takes an imaginative look at how community and creative group exercises can, at best, help to slow the advance of Dementia and also help participants to find a sense of support and solidarity in being with others who are going through a similar experience. There is a particularly poignant scene towards the end of the novel where the residents all sing together in unison and experience a kind of miraculous release which doesn’t remove them from the realities of the illness but allows them to feel free and powerful as autonomous individuals. Much of this section was inspired by my own experience of volunteering with an Alzheimer’s Society, Singing for the Brain group.

“Emboldened by the miracles unfolding in every corner of the Treatment Room, the People’s Committee for Remembering Songs whooped and hollered, raising their wrinkled chins and hands in anticipation of further healing. The noise was deafening.”

As mentioned above Malcolm Orange is far from a perfect novel but it does give some interesting insight into how ageing, and in particular Dementia, is viewed from a child’s perspective. It explores the use of Dementia as a literary device for introducing fantastical elements into a story and also touches upon issues of sexuality, disability and autonomy in regards to those living with Dementia within a residential care environment. I hope it also advocates for the power of story in attesting to who a person living with Dementia once was and continues to be. 

Malcolm Orange Disappears was published by Liberties Press in 2014 

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Book Reviews

“Hour of the Bees” by Lindsay Eagar

Hour of the Bees is Utah-based YA writer, Lindsay Eagar’s debut novel. It’s a captivating story about a family spending a summer together on the sprawling sheep ranch which has been in their family for generations. The story centres around twelve year old Carol. At first Carol isn’t at all keen to give up her entire summer holidays to spend time with her grandfather, Serge on a sheep ranch in the middle of nowhere. Carol, her half-sister Alta, and little brother Lu are used to their life back in the city, with their friends and all the comforts of home. There’s absolutely nothing to entertain them on the sheep ranch, worse still the whole area’s been subject to a drought for decades and the summer months are unbearably hot. Carol and her family don’t really have a choice in terms of where they spend their summer. Serge is extremely elderly and has grown frail. His advancing dementia means he’s increasingly confused, mixing the past with the present and sometimes even mistaking Carol for his late wife as a girl. Serge is moving to a residential care facility at the end of the summer and the family have only a few months to get the ranch fixed up before it’s put up for sale.

Eagar weaves a beautiful magical realist story through the more familiar story of a family struggling to cope with change in the present and resurfacing hurts from the past. Carol grows close to her grandfather as he tells her a long and enchanting fairy tale about her families origins. She comes to understand that her roots and identity are tightly bound to the ranch and ultimately begins to empathise with Serge’s insistence that the land should stay in the family and not be sold to strangers. It’s a beautifully written story and a really enjoyable read with strong emphasis on the importance of listening to older people and valuing family connections.

However, I really struggled with the dementia narrative in this novel. Serge’s dementia feels like a kind of device used to propel the plot. He’s portrayed as confused and frail when the story requires him to be an object of pity or a bone of contention, grating up against the family’s plans. At other points he’s almost miraculously coherent and portrayed as quite strong and virile for such an elderly man. For example, though he frequently finds communication difficult he’s able to narrate, long and extremely eloquent stories about his past. I understand that the magic realist narrative running through the novel allows for a certain amount of liberty to be taken with how the characters are portrayed but I’d be a little concerned that young people with no experience of dementia who read this novel might not get an accurate idea of what the illness is actually like. Eagar, also weaves in a semi-miraculous happy ending for Serge and Carol which is very different from most people’s end of life experience with a loved one who has dementia. It’s an ongoing struggle when reading and writing fictional dementia narratives. The characters need to be written accurately and ethically and yet are also there to serve the story. For me, the balance isn’t quite right in Hour of the Bees, but it’s still an enjoyable read. 

Hour of the Bees was published by Walker Books in 2016