Another book I read in my translated fiction endeavour was Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. This book was brought to my attention by ReadWithCindy as part of an Asian Readathon back in May.
This book caught my eye because of its cute cover and the striking colour-blocked effect. The cover was sweet and when I read the blurb I thought the book would be an enjoyable slow read which had gentle detail and sweet moments. This was completely accurate.
Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste.
But everything is about to change.
Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue’s dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences.
Sweet Bean Paste is a moving novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship. Translated into English for the first time, Durian Sukegawa’s beautiful prose is capturing hearts all over the world.
As you can tell from the blurb, Sentaro is the main character. He has a criminal past which is not as notorious as it sounds on the blurb and he works away at a Dorayaki shop with little enthusiasm. He doesn’t really like his job and just wants to get through the day. Then he meets Tokue.
The relationship between Tokue and Sentaro was really interesting. The dialogue is believable and moments where Tokue teaches Sentaro how to make sweet bean paste were truly believable. Not to spoil the story but Tokue’s secret isn’t a secret truly. It is revealed as such but it is quite obvious that her secret which relates to her disfigured hands is the cause of much prejudice on the behalf of the public. Sentaro starts off scared of Tokue when she reveals her secret but once he realises that his fear is based on ignorance not fact then he becomes more open to Tokue.
The description and dialogue in this book was really great. Some scenes were so enjoyable to read.
The storyline of this book was great and it is quite short. My only criticism is that it could have been shorter and still delivered the exact same story. The last quarter of the book drags a great deal and makes what is a non-dramatic situation quite dramatic.
ReadWithCindy did complain that it felt the whole purpose of the elderly woman Tokue and her tragic backstory was just to contribute to the development of the main male character.
I think this is also true. I didn’t feel turned off by the story because of this – maybe because I enjoyed the backstory and learning about something I knew very little about. I also enjoyed the dialogue but I can understand why it does come across like Tokue is simply there to make the main male character realise something. Then there is a reflection that tells you exactly what the novel wants you to know. This is a problem with literary fiction in general.
The other female character also feels like set dressing and someone who is just there. It is also not made a big enough deal that the other female character (who is a high school student) accompanies a much older man to a particular place. I felt this could have been a bit of commentary on the sexualisation of school girls but it just doesn’t have the space to deal with it when they spend so long to get to the main theme.
Whilst it does feel like many characters are simply there to make the main male character become a better person or realise his potential, I do like this book because it is an enjoyable slow read which is perfect for days you’ve not got any plans.
Anyways overall I would rate this book 3 out of 5 stars.