Convenience Store Woman is the story of a woman’s attempt to conform to a world she doesn’t understand but knows to be exacting and unforgiving. Keiko Furukura has worked part-time at a convenience store since she was eighteen. Now, she is thirty-six and her friends and family are urging her to change her job because it is not normal for a person to be in a part-time job, that too at a convenience store, at her age.
But the convenience store is the only place where Keiko has ever felt safe. She has been aware since childhood that she is not what society defines as normal. She has grown up seeing her parents being humiliated and having to continually apologise for her mistakes but can’t quite understand why her actions are considered inappropriate.
It is only at the convenient store that Keiko’s life makes sense. When morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person. Keiko has learned to adapt her speech and actions to blend in and is considered a valuable member of the convenience store, until she comes under pressure to make a change to her life and to her routine. A routine which has so far served her faithfully.
Convenience Store Woman reads as a satire of our current society which demands everyone to conform and any anomaly is normalised, either by correcting or expelling it. Keiko is one such anomaly. She doesn’t feel love, is disgusted by sex, can’t empathise with other’s situations, and thinks of babies as animals. Someone we would easily categorise as emotionally-stunted. Therefore, I was very pleased to find that Sayaka Murata hasn’t attributed any medical conditions to justify her protagonist’s behaviour.
Keiko is just different. But her different-ness comes as an affront to her friends and family. They want her to be married, have a proper job and bear children, just like themselves. Sometimes their reaction is almost farcical: Keiko’s sister would be happier to see Keiko with a man who is unemployed and unfaithful rather than not being married at all. The convenience store, itself, is a microcosm of such a society where those who comply remain, while others are ousted.
With Convenience Store Woman Murata asks us to think if our pursuit of success, money and fame is homogenising the society and aggravating our intolerance towards anyone who doesn’t conform.
While I enjoyed the book and did not want to put it down, it was, overall, underwhelming. It is essentially a novella and a third of it is dedicated to Keiko’s life and her routine at the convenience store. Nothing of significance happens until the last third of the book. It is only the style and the dark humour, characteristically Japanese, which keep the reader interested. (At one point, Keiko implies that she could easily quiet a crying baby by killing him with a knife.)
For some, the style may not be enough. Repetition abounds in the novel. Murata frequently reiterates Keiko’s efforts to blend in and sound like other people. Her actions are always qualified, as though to continually remind the reader that she is different from us. These repetitions are unhelpful and jarring. The author has used the same technique with Shiraha’s vitriolic outbursts. An outcast like Keiko, Shiraha is prone to monologues where he curses and swears at society’s unacceptance of him and gender roles and expectations, but these speeches sound the same with very little difference. It does make me wonder if nuances of the language were lost in translation.
Regardless, Convenient Store Woman makes for a good read for anyone who has ever felt different, which, if you come to think of it, is most of us.
About Sayaka Murata
Even five years on, Sayaka Murata’s story, A Clean Marriage (Granta 127), comes to me at the oddest of times: at the park with my children, when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m running. It is the story of a couple who decide never to have sex but want to have children. It wasn’t their unnatural situation that has stayed with me, but the very singular characters and their peculiar habits. That’s Murata’s strength: the characters. No matter how unrelatable or unlikable, their portrayal calls out to the unwanted part in us that we don’t want anyone to see. Murata creates these characters who are, for the want of a better word, strange and puts them in everyday situations and lets the story unfold.
The inspiration for Convenience Store Woman came from Murata’s own experience as a convenience store worker. She has written ten novels and Convenience Store Woman is her first book to be translated in English. Let’s hope that we get to read more of her work in future.
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.