I’ve read a lot of novels this year, but this stands out as one of my favourites.
First published in English in 2017, it is written by Durian Sukegawa, A Tokyo-based author who studied Oriental philosophy and previously worked as a journalist in Germany and Cambodia.
I had never heard of the book or the author but was drawn to it partly because I think the cover is fabulous but also because I really enjoy Japanese literature. And having consumed this wondrous tale, I find the cover artwork even more appealing as it perfectly matches the contents – understated, gentle, and slightly unusual.
Sweet Bean Paste tells the story of Sentaro who wanted to be a writer, has a criminal record, drinks more than is good for him and has ended up working all day in a back street confectionary shop making dorayaki by cutting corners and selling them to customers he doesn’t really like.
When he advertises for someone to help him, Tokue, a 76-year-old woman with deformed hands is the only person who applies for the job. He turns her down, several times, until he tastes the delicious sweet bean paste she creates – the staple for dorayaki.
There follows a tale of unlikely friendship between the down and out confectionary worker, the old lady and a young customer called Wakana and it is set against a backdrop of hardship, suffering and prejudice.
Sukegawa’s language is sparse and beguiling, pulling you in to life in the confectionary shop until Tokue’s past is revealed and your heart bleeds for her.
He wastes no words but teases the story out of his characters without the need for rush.
Sweet Bean Paste is as gentle and beautiful as the blossom falling from the cherry trees that line the street on which the dorayaki shop is located and its subtle messages resonate long after you’ve read the final page.
This is a book to be savoured and then read again.