When I read the blurb of this book, I had the idea that it was going to be that cozy, feel-good, light-hearted book you need to read from time to time. I like stories that progress with a gentle, contemplative flow, and slowly unravel their best parts. I prefer characters who are ordinary people with all their human emotions, unique qualities and flaws which make them extraordinary.
And Sweet Bean Paste did not disappoint me, though I had been wrong in a few of my presumptions: it’s certainly not a light-hearted story and not all of it makes you feel cozy and delighted. It is going to warm your heart, move you deeply, bring you to tears and stay with you for a long time.
Sentaro, the protagonist, works at a confectionery shop named Doraharu, to pay off his debt to the owner of the shop, as he had helped Sentaro begin a new life after serving his sentence in prison. Sentaro makes Dorayaki: a traditional Japanese confectionery which uses sweet-bean paste. Sentaro outsources the bean paste, which does not taste delicious enough to draw a good number of customers.
Tokue Yoshi, an old woman in her seventies arrives at Doraharu looking for a job. She has gnarled fingers, and a half-paralyzed face. Sentaro is doubtful about employing such an old woman, but considering the sales of the shop, Tokue’s fifty years of experience in making sweet bean paste and the meagre wages that she had asked, Sentaro decides to give her the job.
Sentaro marvels at the way Tokue makes sweet bean paste. The paste tastes incredibly delicious and the sales are rising like never before. Sentaro is trying to learn the art of making sweet bean paste from Tokue, though he never really reaches the same level of perfection as Tokue.
Trouble arises soon, as both Sentaro and Tokue’s problematic past lives begin to surface. The sales fall down at the shop again, and Sentaro is faced with the most difficult decision: to tell Tokue that she has to leave.
The book begins like a bud, slowly unfolding its petals and towards the end it is a flower in full bloom– like all those cherry blossoms that frequently appear in the book itself. It is one of the best works of magical realism I have ever read. Accompanied with pleasant imagery and exquisitely implemented metaphors, the story explores life and nature of humanity.
There are only a few characters, and each of them have their own deep-rooted sorrows and trials. Tokue is a larger-than-life character, and the story has grown around her like branches of a tree. In the book, there are letters written by Tokue, in which a few parts seem to be repetitive. Naturally, a woman of seventy-six cannot be particularly careful not to repeat things she wants to talk about. In fact, these letters have formed an integral part of the story.
Sentaro has a tainted past which haunts him, and his dream of becoming a writer seems distant. Wakana is a school girl who forms a bond of friendship with Tokue. Their lives become connected in an unexpected way. The lives of Sentaro and Wakana are not going to be the same, after they have known Tokue so closely.
If I tell you what left me speechless about this book, I would probably have to give spoilers. I am not willing to do that. Rather, it is best if you explore the book slowly, savouring each chapter like a delectable confectionery, enjoying the growth of the simple story into a profound one.