Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator)

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Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator)

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Em Richardson
Reviewed by Em Richardson
Summary: An enthralling book, telling the story of an incredibly moving friendship, and teaching the reader important lessons about making the most of life and showing acceptance to others.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2017
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1786071958

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Sweet Bean Paste centres on Sentaro, an ex-con who dreams of being a writer, but instead spends his days making dorayaki, a type of Japanese pancake. He reluctantly employs Tokue, an elderly lady with disfigured hands, after tasting her divine bean paste - the perfect filling for said dorayaki. Predictably, a friendship soon blossoms between the pair, despite her age and appearance. In many ways, this could sound cliché - a protagonist learns a valuable lesson about not judging someone by their appearance after finding a friend in someone they never expected to like, not exactly an unheard-of concept. Yet, Sukegawa still manages to enthral his audience.

The reason for this lies mainly with his characters. In Sentaro, he has taken a great risk, as some would question whether he has made his character too unlucky. Time in prison, large amounts of debt, a difficult relationship with his mother - Sentaro has done it all. Despite this, he never seems like a character who is asking to be pitied. Sukegawa portrays him as a very private character, telling the reader only a tiny bit more about Sentaro's past than the character himself discloses to those he meets over the course of the novel. The fact we know only the bare minimum about him, means we are able to judge him as we find him in the present, rather than focussing on his unfortunate past. We see him as a character who is to be pitied to some extent, and a sad past was needed to explain why he has ended up in his situation, however the desire to make something of himself that Tokue encourages in him means that we also have hopes for his future. Sukegawa has definitely not created the stereotypical 'troubled' character, even if he has been through a lot, and doesn't need to manipulate his reader's emotions at all.

This is something he shares with Tokue. Their friendship may be threatened when her own devastating past is revealed, yet she shows remarkable resilience, and a determination to live life to the full. There is a lot of sadness in the book, yet its main message is positive, showing that even a life that has seen great pain and suffering, can have meaning. Unlike Sentaro, we learn a lot about Tokue's horrendous past, so Sukegawa is able to move the reader by simply describing how pleased she now is to be able to enjoy the simple things in life, like finally having buyers for her confectionery. It is also heart-warming to see how her friendship with Sentaro and their young friend Wakana blossoms, particularly the way she has finally met people who are unconcerned by her appearance.

An underlying theme of this book, and one that Sukegawa deals with sensitively throughout, is definitely the stigma those with disabilities or certain medical conditions face in our society. Tokue embodies the idea that appearance is irrelevant, proving to be an industrious worker as well as a fierce friend. Her treatment from Sentaro's boss, the owner of the dorayaki shop he manages, showcases everything wrong with our society's attitudes to appearance, as she ignores medical fact in her mission to force Sentaro to fire Tokue, using her illness as an excuse for disliking the way she looks.

That being said, it must be remembered that Sweet Bean Paste isn't always sad as, as Tokue does show that it is possible not to be defined by illness or disfigurement. If anything, her own struggles seem to have made her more determined to enjoy herself, and make her life worth living. This is that rare book that leaves readers truly humbled, reminding us of everything we should be thankful for, and that it is never too late to do something with our lives.

For further reading, anyone who wishes to learn more about Japanese food and culture might enjoy Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane.

Buy Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa and Alison Watts (translator) at Amazon.com.


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