How are you all? Hope everyone is enjoying July. This year has been so strange you know. I can’t believe we finish for summer this week but it doesn’t feel right. Anyway, it’s completely out of our control. I am looking forward to a break. I’ve got lots of reading planned and a HUGE pile of books to get through. I love that though!
Today I want to share with you a book I read in one sitting. It’s just utterly beautiful and I know you’d love it. I just had to share it with you! It’s criminal not to. I’m talking about Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. This book is a translation but it’s strikingly beautiful. I hope you enjoy!
What’s it about?
Set in the beautiful Japanese cherry blossom, the novel centres around Sentaro, a middle aged man with a criminal record, a habit of drinking too much and a dream of becoming a writer. The reality is he spends his time watching the blossom come and go making and selling dorayaki – a type of pancake with a sweet bean paste. The mundane reality of his life is getting to him; he longs for more. One day whilst he was working in the confectionary shop, he notices a woman looking at him. He politely nods. This image repeats over time, he recognises her and she seems to spend a long time watching from afar under the Japanese blossom. She approaches the shop after reading a sign asking for workers. Despite her age, seventy six, she wants the job. She offers to work for less but is still rejected. However, she seems to know plenty about the bean paste and wishes to share that knowledge. With over fifty years experience, the reader sees that she clearly has a life before that has led her to this moment and persistency in returning to the shop.
“I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.”
Little did he know, this little old lady, Tokue, would change his world for the better. Deeply in touch with nature, Tokue watches the trees and their movement. She is certain that feelings make food better. She wants to impart this knowledge to Sentaro because he clearly needs saving from the situation he finds himself. He needs saving from himself. There is one major problem: her hands. Nevertheless, after tasting her sweet bean paste he offers her a job there. He has to learn how she does it to help the business. He is well aware that he only has the job because he has a debt to repay to the owner. At first, his motivation was this.
“Sentaro didn’t really care where she made it. He didn’t care who she was, either. All that concerned him was if she could make a good-quality, sweet bean paste to draw in the customers and help him get away from this shop as soon as possible.”
Tokue begins to make the paste by teaching Sentaro what she knows and her technique for creating something so utterly divine: like nothing he has ever tasted. Over time, the two become close. They talk, make bean paste and see an improvement in the confectionary store. Because of the earlier concern about her hands, Tokue tried incredibly hard to stay in the back and out of the way. She does have an Achilles heel: babies. If any young children or babies come into the shop, she naturally gravitated towards them. She seemed to grow and blossom around her. With the success of the product, the increased sales and therefore increased production, Sentaro became more positive and more exhausted. There is no time for drinking! Eventually, this catches up with him and he ends up unable to work. The following day he learns that Tokue creates and opens the shop on her own. She manages the money and writes everything down to help him. Sentaro is completely shell shocked.
‘Sentaro felt like sitting down in shock. How had she managed it? What was her pancake batter like? She had handled all the money with those gnarled fingers…? What had the customers thought of that?’
One of the younger customers, Wakana, takes a liking to Tokue and finds the courage to question her about her life, with a particular focus on her hands and fingers. This image is recurring and we are constantly reminded as a reader that there is a tale to be told here. Tokue is very reserved about it, holding the majority of the story to herself. We learn that she wanted to be a teacher, hence the appreciation and excitement towards children, but an illness when she was younger meant that she was never able to fulfil her dream. Whilst things had been incredibly good, like the seasons and the weather, time brings about change. There is a rumour about a cursed lady working at the shop causing customers to stay away. In his naivety, he accepted the illness story. What he didn’t realise what the extent of that illness or what that illness was. It turns out that as a child Tokue had leprosy. Tokue is old enough and wise enough to know that the drop in sales and the rumours are down to her, so decides to quit. As if beautifully timed, the trees have lost their blossom too…
“There was a time when I’d given up all hope of ever going outside those gates into the world again. But look at me. I could come here. I met so many people. All because you gave me a job.”
As a result of this, Sentaro finds himself back in bleak sadness. He feels as though he has sent his own mother away. Over time, he decides he needs to go back and see her. He takes Wakana with him and they bring a canary for her to look after. It is clear that they all need each other so the gap between them has meant that they’ve missed each other terribly. Yet, he had to make the business work in order to repay his debt. The quality dropped again following Tokue’s departure but Sentaro took his lessons seriously. Because of his huge amount of feeling, this was in the bean paste. It really does change the taste. During the winter months, Tokue sent a letter as a reminder and a shove that Sentaro needs. She felt something in the wind that told her to contact him. Beautifully, she know that something wasn’t quite right. She was correct.
“It’s important to be bold and decisive. When you can say with certainty that you have found your style of dorayaki, that will be the start of a new day for you. I firmly believe this. Please have the courage to go your own way. I know that you can do it.”
More time passed, more letters sent and received and more pressure from the owner to make the shop more profitable. Eventually, Sentaro decides to quit and move onto something else. However, the calling of dorayaki and everything he gained from Tokue called to him. Seeing the vision of Tokue and hearing her words gave him the shove again he so desperately needed. It just so happened that this time he was too late to tell her. The novel closes with one last beautiful letter, a death and a new beginning. Sentaro will never forget the impact that Tokue had on him.
‘Sentaro and Wakana stood close, gazing in silence at the trees all around them. The forest murmured with every ripple of wind that rustled its branches and leaves. As if Tokue was somewhere close nearby, telling them to open their ears and listen.’
I’ve used the word beautiful copious amounts in this review because it absolutely is. It moved me in ways I didn’t expect. I was worried regarding the translation and if it would lose its eloquence but its simplicity makes it elegantly sublime. By noticing nature and listening to the messages in the wind, we can all learn to live differently. Tokue’s character showed us that when times are incredibly difficult, we always have hope. Her hope was young people and babies. They animated her and brought light to her. They showed her that she wasn’t foolish to have those dreams. The illness may have taken her opportunity as a young adult, but she had a different opportunity in that shop as an elderly lady. The bond between the older generation is a gift. Like Sentaro, we can always learn something and better ourselves. There is always light, even in the darkest of times.
I genuinely loved this book. I’d say, so far, that this is my favourite book this year. It was blown away by its simplicity, it’s tenderness and love. I highly recommend to absolutely everyone. Everywhere.
Big love all xxxx