Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman by the best-selling Japanese author Sayaka Murata is her 10th novel but first to be translated into English (by Ginny Tapley Takemori). It has sold over 660,000 copies in Japan alone and eared Murata Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature two years ago.
Convenience Store Woman takes a comic yet somehow still poignant look at women’s place in Japanese society when they’re over thirty, not married and with no children. Keiko has been a problem for her family since being a small girl, her literal thinking and lack of emotion causing concern from the people around her. One of her first memories of being truly different is when the body of a small bird is found in a park. Other children are upset and comforted by the idea of having a burial; Keiko however, picks up the bird’s body, carries it to her mother and suggests they take it home so that her father can eat it. She’s puzzled by what she’s done wrong in suggesting it, but she never forgets the look of horror on people’s faces. Whatever is wrong with her, she knows it needs to be fixed.
At eighteen-years-old Keiko finds her true home; she applies for a job in a newly opened convenience store and she finds it suits her perfectly. She thrives in the routine, the script of acceptable greetings and repetitive customer queries. She even learns from the people she works with, copying their speech patterns and styling so that she fits into the convenience store life even more. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” Keiko muses.
But after eighteen years in the same job, she finds people have distanced themselves and after discussions with her sister and other store workers, she realises that they would be happier and more comfortable around her if there was a man in her life. So when a hopeless job-hopper of a man is fired from the convenience store within days of starting, she sees an opportunity.
Keiko is indifferent to love and sex and the man admits to having no interest in her along these lines either. What he wants is a place to hide from the world, where people won’t question and expect things of him and all she wants is to appear ‘normal.’ She invites him to move in with her and, like a sullen teenager, he begrudgingly accepts. He gets to hide from what society asks of him and she uses him to fake it.
Although Keiko’s reactions aren’t meant to be normal, you can’t help but warm to her as a lovable oddball. There’s an innocence to her that earns your trust as a reader, the only real mention of her having a darker side comes in reference to her sister’s baby, a small knife and how to silence the crying infant.
The secondary character in this novel, Shiraha, makes for unsettling reading. He’s sexist, unattractive and generally unlikeable, but once you understand the symbiotic nature of their relationship and how Keiko sees him as more of a pet than a human being (referring to his meals as ‘feeding time’) her deadpan humour takes the edge off the situation. However, it was fascinating reading about a hikikomori (statistically a young man who withdraws from society and doesn’t leave their home) for the first time in fiction.
This novel centres around sekentei, the Japanese word for a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels to impress others. Keiko and Shiraha reflect the current reports of declining marriage and low birthrates, Keiko wants to fit into society so that her family think she’s ‘fixed’ but Shiraha is overwhelmed and rebels against them.
Convenience Store Woman is an unconventional love story between a woman and a convenience store. It might not be action-packed but it’s funny, poignant and strangely spellbinding. This novel is just as quirky as it’s heroine and for that reason, I loved it.
If you like this then you’ll love The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.