Sweet Bean Paste

Durian Sukegawa

(Oneworld, £8.99)

There’s a little shop in Tokyo that sells sweet pancake-based treats called dorayaki. A man named Sentaro works there; not especially happily, but his employment prospects are somewhat limited. At one time, he wanted to be a writer, but his plans were derailed by a spell in prison. He only has this job because he owes the late owner’s widow a debt and is paying it off by running the shop. Although bean paste is the basis of the doroyaki, he puts no more effort into its preparation than he needs to, simply filling them with factory-produced paste.

One day, he’s approached by a little old lady in her seventies with gnarled hands who is so eager to make bean paste that she offers to work there at half the going rate. Sentaro resists at first, but Tokue wears him down and, unsurprisingly, it turns out that she makes the best bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. A master of her craft, Tokue toils over bubbling pans of adzuki beans, listening to them intently as she works her magic. The customers love these new dorayaki. Sentaro, who has been glumly drifting through life, is puzzled by the sense of achievement he gets from learning her techniques.

And yet he still has reservations. His reluctance to take Tokue on in the first place was largely because of her disfigured hands, and he still insists that she stays in the back so that the customers aren’t put off. Sweet Bean Paste, which started off as a simple, charming tale, opens out into an examination of a rarely-discussed prejudice.

Tokue’s hands, it emerges, are the result of a bout of leprosy she contracted while a teenager. Along with countless others across Japan, she was rounded up and put in a hospital where she would be isolated forever from society. Even after the law was changed in 1996 to allow sufferers into the general population, and new drugs have ensured that they are both cured and non-infectious, the prejudice still lingers and Tokue continues to live in the institution where she’s spent the last half-century. When the owner’s widow discovers that Sentaro has employed a former leper without telling her, she fears for her business and tells him that Tokue has to go.

The author explains that he always felt “it was a brutal assessment of people’s lives to employ usefulness to society as a yardstick by which to measure their value”, and Sweet Bean Paste was his way of expressing that sentiment. Despite the steely gaze it casts across Japan, it’s a tender-hearted novel tracing an inter-generational friendship that blooms under the cherry blossoms that mark the passage of the seasons. Learning about the hardships Tokue has endured helps Sentaro to put his own life in perspective, and her lessons about listening show this failed writer that there are other ways in which he can find his voice. As wise as it is moving, Sukegawa’s novel beguiles and seduces the reader from evocative opening to compassionate close.