Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This Japanese novel follows Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six year old woman who has worked in a convenience store for the past eighteen years. She enjoys being a cog in the machine that makes her workplace run smoothly. Her daily routine rarely deviates from the norm she has established but instead of wanting something different she thrives in the predictability of her days. Keiko survives scrutiny from her colleagues by emulating their speech patterns and mannerisms. She uses phrases she adopts from both them and her sister during the rare social gatherings she attends with friends.
Her contentment in her job, paired with the fact that she’s never been in a romantic relationship is a cause for stress and tension within her family and circle of friends. They find Keiko odd and other, putting pressure on her to conform and have a more ‘acceptable’ life. Their probes into her career choices and marital status rarely faze her but there comes a point where she catches the pitying glances and mocking exchanges and perceives her own differences.
There is no startling realisation that she is considered by others as a ‘foreign object’. She is well aware that she is different and has no idea how to conform or become more ordinary. ‘I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside the manual’. At the convenience there is a clear set of rules that she can follow to ensure success in the workplace, but there is no such manual for navigating life. Keiko often wonders if there is ‘a cure’ and if she can find her own place in the world.
‘The convenience store worker mask is the only one I’m fit to wear. So if people don’t accept that, I have no idea what I can do about it.’
At points in the novel, she decides to change and is forced to confront her own sense of self. Though never labelled, Keiko’s actions and perspective suggest that she is neurodivergent in some way. She finds human connection difficult to comprehend and lacks empathy. At one point in the novel Keiko imagines silencing her sister’s baby with a knife instead of soothing it; seeing it as an effective means to peace. This is perhaps the point where the reader begins to share her family’s concerns for her. There is an evident naivety to her, one that leads her to be taken advantage of.
Though many have described it as hilarious, this book’s categorisation as humorous was mystifying. Quirky it may be, it was also very depressing at times. Convenience Store Woman gives an interesting commentary on societal expectations and conformity as well as providing an insight into contemporary life in Japan. Keiko’s narration afforded Murata the opportunity to shed light on the absurdities of modern work culture and gender roles but Keiko’s logical outlook is paired with some very bizarre observations. It is definitely not a book that would suit everyone’s tastes, and though it explores interesting topics, the characters are not likeable enough to leave a sizeable impression.
The translation from Japanese into English is seamless and very well done; ensuring immersion in the lovely prose. This short, character driven, novel is thought-provoking, and an enjoyable read, one that lingers for a short while.
By Bochra Boudarka
Cover design by Luke Bird
Cover image by Emmanuel LATTES / Alamy