Book Review: Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Sweet Bean Paste: The International Bestseller: Sukegawa, Durian, Watts,  Alison: 9781786071958: Books

Title: Sweet Bean Paste

Author: Durian Sukegawa

Genre: Literary Fiction

Number of Pages: 213

Rating: B-

Recommended?: Yes

Sweet Bean Paste is a quiet Japanese novel about the unlikely friendship that blossoms when an elderly woman persuades a lonely ex-con to hire her to work in the restaurant where he’s unhappily employed.

Sentaro doesn’t find much joy in life and he makes dorayaki that’s just barely good enough, but Tokue’s culinary abilities are so finely honed that she ends up attracting a ton paying customers over a fairly short amount of time.

However, when it’s revealed that Tokue has (treated and not contagious) Hansen’s Disease- leprosy- and spent most of her life in a sanatorium, Sentaro is pressured to lay her off due to fears of ‘contamination.’ I liked this book but I didn’t love it. It’s well-written and even though it’s somewhat predictable, it’s still a pleasure to read.

I also learned a lot about Hansen’s Disease and what patients with this illness have historically gone through- separated from their families, kept in quarantine, and excluded by a society that fears and distrusts them. While the characters were likable, I also felt like they were fairly one-dimensional.

Tokue was too perfect and seemed more like a construct to further Sentaro’s arc than a person in her own right. She never got mad or worked up about anything; she was constantly a supportive, wise presence in the other characters’ lives.

This might not have been a big deal if she was a supporting character but since she was one of the main protagonists, I found her lack of depth frustrating. There are too many characters with disabilities and illnesses in fiction who are written to be ‘inspirational’- let these characters be whole and messy and flawed, like real people! If there had been more satisfying character development this book could have been great instead of just merely okay.

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