I seem to have an affinity for books tinged in melancholy, but Durian Sukegawa's lovely story, Sweet Bean Paste (originally published in Japanese as An, translated into English by Alison Watts), is ultimately a redemptive story. It's about friendship and understanding, second chances and lost chances, about the weight of history and loneliness. Three disparate characters will come together, perhaps clashing at first but then finding how their crossed paths can soften the edges and even sometimes change lives. The book's cover illustration is perfect for what is sandwiched inside--muted pastel shades--evocative of sweet smelling cherry blossoms and the aroma of dorayaki.
It's a breeze that blows along Cherry Blossom Street, and sweet scent that ushers the reader into the store of Sentaro. Doraharu is the dorayaki shop Sentaro is left to manage after the death of the owner, a man who helped get him out of trouble. Sentaro has had a difficult life, but Doraharu is his second chance, or at least the road to a second chance, if he can make a go of it. After the owner passed away, his wife asked Sentaro to stay on and run the confectionary. Once his debt has been cleared Sentaro wants only to move on to something better.
Doraharu is a sad little shop, however. And Sentaro does the very minimum to keep it going. The owner's wife only keeps an eye on things from afar, as long as he can keep the shop running and some profits coming in. He sells only the sweet buns filled with red bean paste and then he uses pre-made paste to fill his confections. He's not really a true baker, at least he doesn't try very hard to be one. To stretch the mixture out as long as he can he mixes the leftover with the new from the can. It's adequate but nothing spectacular. It's mundane rather than artistry. For the local schoolgirls who like to come each day to chatter and have a sweet it's good enough.
Tokue, however, has been watching the shop from a distance, and she knows her dorayaki. And she knows when she tries one of Sentaro's that it is . . . lacking. She comes to his window one day to tell him that while the pancake was not too bad, the bean paste, well . . . "I couldn't tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it." She tells him that bean paste is all about feeling and his had none. Not surprising since it comes from a can. What Tokue wants is to work for Sentaro, help him make proper bean paste, a true dorayaki that people can savor. Sentaro only sees an elderly lady who moves slowly and whose hands are gnarled and unsightly. Of course she could never be hired to work with the customers, making the paste and worse serving them.
One day she brings him a sample of her homemade bean paste to try, but once she left the shop he pitched the container into the trash. Something niggles at him and in his mind he feels the guilt of having been so dismissive of the old lady, so he pulls the container out and tries the bean paste and knows he is in the presence of a true confectioner. He reasons that if he hires her on the low wages she is willing to accept and keeps her in the kitchen only making the bean paste, he can pay off his debt faster and so get on with his life. A life, he feels is out somewhere on the horizon, but not quite in his grasp.
Once her bean paste is used on his pancakes the dorayaki are magic and the customers begin coming. Things don't quite work out as he expected. Despite the difficulties of her hands, she is personable and pleasant and likes nothing better than to chat with the customers, even taking some of the schoolgirls under her wings. But the owner's wife gets wind of this new employee and is unhappy with Sentaro's decisions concerning the shop. Sentaro wonders about Tokue's hands and what caused them to look as they do. She is amiable but secretive about her past and he does not like to pry.
Some secrets can be devastating. Just when the shop is beginning to take off, bits of Tokue's history are revealed and just as a happy rhythm has been achieved it is broken, but just maybe lessons have been learned. This is such a lovely, gentle read. Despite the heavy tone, as Sukegawa reaches into Japan's sad past, it is muted in the beauty of his storytelling. This is a true gem of a read and an unexpected yet happy find. Sweet Bean Paste has been made into a movie (this was my March prompt selection for book into movie), and I hope to watch it this weekend. It would be perfect to pair it with a dorayaki or two, if I can get my hands on them, though I think I would prefer the real thing--just as Tokue might have made them. Sweet Bean Paste is warmly recommended!