Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Genre: Fiction, Novella
Maturity Level: 4
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Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?
I feel as though I should start this review by saying that I know very little about contemporary Japanese culture, and next to nothing about Japanese literature. There is a very good chance that I did not fully understand this book, so I don’t feel I am qualified to write a real “review” or to make a recommendation. I’m just going to reflect on my personal reading experience. Okay then.
I quite enjoyed this little book! While the cover flap instructs me that it is a critique of modern workaholic society, I rather identified with Keiko? I also enjoyed working part time at a store, and found the routine and predictability (as well as lack of “real” responsibility!) comforting. While, yes, I do find it sad that Keiko has no self-value outside of herself as a store worker, I can absolutely relate to the sense of purpose she derived from work. Maybe Murata would condemn me as part of the blind masses, but as she continues to work at a convenience store I think this might not be so black-and-white.
Keiko was a unique character. I think she is likely a sociopath, though a good-natured and well-intentioned one. There are certainly some elements of dark humor surrounding her, but I admit I was charmed by the simple way she viewed the world. She reminded me a bit of Eleanor Oliphant, though troubled in very different ways, in that she didn’t quite understand societal expectations or why it was important to do certain things. Unlike Eleanor, she makes an effort to fit in, mostly to get people to leave her alone. This is another thing I think readers will identify with. Though, again, Keiko is presented as a caricature and possibly satire, I think there have been times in everyone’s life when we’ve done things we didn’t really understand the purpose of just because it’s the thing to do. Americans especially, I think, will understand societal pressures to just be “normal” and how frustrating that can be.
There’s not much of a plot here. That is, the plot exists, but it is not the focus. Rather the convenience store is a backdrop to a month in the life of Keiko, and an opportunity for us to see the world from her point of view.
I was a little unsettled by how the light and airy tone didn’t quite match the heaviness of some of the ideas presented. I don’t know if that’s a translation thing, or just the way Japanese literature is right now, but it was odd for me. It was definitely a far cry from the current writing style in American literary fiction, which is just fine with me thank you.
All in all, definitely an interesting book. I certainly have seen the world from a lens I never have before, which I always appreciate.