Tag Archives: Alison Watts

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (translated by Alison Watts): More than just a simple confection

Cover imageI seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.

Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.

Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.

Books to Look Out for in October 2017

Cover imageThere are three titles competing for top of my October wish list. Hard to choose which to grab first so I’m plumping for the one I’ve been waiting for the longest: Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. It’s been eight years since Gillespie and I was published, a novel which features a superbly unreliable narrator, and eleven since The Observations which I included in my Blasts from the Past series. Gillespie and I leapt the second novel hurdle with flying colours so hopes are high for Harris’ third, set in eighteenth-century Martinique where two brothers have been instructed to return to their home island of Grenada to smuggle back forty-two slaves from a hospital plantation. ‘With great characters, a superb narrative set up, and language that is witty, bawdy and thrillingly alive, Sugar Money is a novel to treasure’ say the publishers encouragingly.

Sticking with the long gap between novels theme, my second choice Is Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach published seven years after the excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. It opens in Brooklyn against the backdrop of the Great Depression, with young Anna Kerrigan taken by her father to the house of a rich man. Years later, Anna works in the shipyard during the war, earning the money that has kept her family since her father’s disappearance. When she meets the man she remembers from her childhood she begins to question what has happened to her father. ‘Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world’ say the publishers which sounds very ambitious but given Egan’s past novels may well not be an exaggeration.

In any other month Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour would have had no competition in topping my list. I’m an ardent fan as regular readers may have gathered. McDermott excels at that pared-back yet lyrical prose that I love – I’ve yet to read anything by her I’ve not enjoyed. Thankfully she’s a little more prolific than Harris and Egan although it’s been four years sinceCover image Someone, her last novel. Set in Brooklyn, her new book follows three generations of an Irish immigrant family in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A man takes his own life, leaving his young wife pregnant. Sister St Saviour offers her work in the convent’s laundry, saving her from destitution but although never spoken of, her husband’s suicide remains a stigma. ‘In prose of startling radiance and precision, Alice McDermott tells a story that is at once wholly individual and universal in its understanding of the human condition. Rendered with remarkable lucidity and intelligence, The Ninth Hour is the crowning achievement of one of today’s finest writers’ say the publishers whetting my appetite further.

And now for something entirely different. Gabe Hbash’s Stephen Florida is about a college student, an amateur wrestler with his eye set on a championship. Not a premise that would usually appeal but the publishers‘ description is an intriguing one: ‘Profane, manic and tipping into the uncanny, this is Florida’s chronicle of loneliness, obsession, and the drive to leave a mark. With echoes of The Art of Fielding and the film Foxcatcher, Gabe Habash’s daring, revelatory debut journeys into the mind of a young man teetering between control and rage, grief and elation, genius and insanity’. That reference to The Art of Fielding was inevitable, I suppose, but it did catch my eye.

Tony Peake’s North Facing has as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the world appeared to be on the point of catastrophe. Rather than simply telling the story of the American/Russian face-off, Peake’s novel views it through the lens of a group of South African schoolboys, one of whom is discovering his sexuality and the politics of his troubled country. Now in his sixties and drawn back to Pretoria, Paul recalls that time which saw both the Sharpeville massacre and the arrest of Nelson Mandela. I’m particularly drawn to this novel after reading Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg, set on the day after Mandela’s death.

Cover imageMy final choice is Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Set in Japan, it’s about a disillusioned man with a criminal record who makes the titular paste for the pancakes sold in the confectioner’s where he works. When an elderly disabled woman enters the shop, offering to teach him her own recipe, a friendship begins. The publishers describe Sukegawa’s book as ‘a quietly devastating novel about the burden of the past and the redemptive power of friendship’ which sounds very appealing.

That’s it for October. A click on any title that’s piqued your interest will take you to a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks soon…