I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: books in translation are a unique kind of magic. Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be.
The blurb begins: “Keiko isn’t normal,”. A strong start, wouldn’t you say? Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different” from everybody else, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well in her conservative and conformist culture – it freaks people out and causes problems. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store (a konbini) – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual that provides her with strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she says, on page 21. Thus, she becomes the titular Convenience Store Woman.
Eighteen years later, however, the gig is starting to wear thin. Not for Keiko, but for the people around her. Keiko has happily adopted “convenience store worker” as her whole identity, and struggles to understand why that’s not enough. Her friends and family worry about her, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards: as far as they’re concerned, stacking shelves and greeting customers in a 24/7 convenience store is no way for a woman of advancing (reproductive) years to live, and the pressure to find a new job (or a husband) intensifies…
Enter Shiraha: a ragamuffin, layabout, ne’er do well who takes a job at the convenience store for the express purpose of “marriage shopping”. Basically, he’s an incel, looking for someone to give him social credibility and (ideally) finance his ridiculous idea for a start-up. He’s fired from the convenience store almost immediately, of course, because he’s the absolute worst – but not before Keiko identifies him as a potential solution to her own problem(s). In her world, any explanation for her supposed aberration is better than no explanation at all. So, she takes Shiraha in, and presents him to the world as her live-in partner. There! They both “fit in” now! Happily ever after, right?
Of course not! Stick two misfits like Keiko and Shiraha in a tiny apartment together, on Keiko’s meager convenience store worker salary no less, and everything will inevitably go to shit. Keiko has mild psychopathic tendencies, resorts to mimicking her co-workers’ speech and dress to “fit in”, and remains blithely indifferent to sex, romance, or anything like it. Shiraha feels entitled to anything and everything he wants, and views their whole arrangement as a huge favour that he is doing for Keiko out of the goodness of his heart. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both long to flip the bird to the homogenising pressures of Japanese culture.
Let’s be clear here, though: Convenience Store Woman isn’t some kind of odd-couple rom-com, it’s no contemporary take on Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism.
And yet, Convenience Store Woman is SHORT. Like, seriously SHORT. 163 pages! SHORT! The story moves very fast, which is part of its appeal, but it was almost (only almost) too fast for me. I would’ve loved to spend more time in Keiko’s mind and her world, but I’ve got to respect the mastery. How Murata managed to cram so much into so few pages is beyond me! On par with the economical prose of Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion…
I can’t resist a spoiler (but I left it ’til the very last paragraph, so don’t complain): in the end, Keiko rejects the more “convenient” life that Shiraha offers her, and returns to the convenience store. Obviously, that’s a broader statement about rejecting conformism in the pursuit of happiness (real or synthetic), and it’s very cleverly done – in fact, it didn’t strike me until later that that’s what Murata was getting at. Convenience Store Woman is such an intriguingly strange book, one that feels uniquely singular but simultaneously universal. I absolutely recommend it!
My favourite Amazon reviews of Convenience Store Woman:
- “Cute story, not to norm” – Tanya settle
- “anybody who didn’t understand this book hasen’t subsumed themselves into the rhythms of a low-level retail job. I loved this book.” – pencillers
- “What seems would be a dull story about an ordinary woman with a mundane job is a fascinating novel.” – eva b.
- “A very enjoyable story told from the perspective of a non-violent sociopath. It’s unlike any story I’ve read and quite fun at that.” – JF
- “This book felt like something Dostoyevsky would have written if he were a woman and had a sense of humor….” – Travis Ann Sherman
August 4, 2020 at 7:50 PM
I also really loved this book; we included it in the Japan episode of our show. Keiko is so odd and endearing, and I love the questions the story raises about what’s ‘normal’ and how we’re expected to live our lives. The pressure in the US to conform is intense enough, but in Japan, it’s even more extreme. I was rooting for her the whole time, even when (especially when?!) she was a kid and was pretty kooky. I listened to teh audio, and if you ever want to re-read this, I 100% recommend the audiobook. The narrator does a brilliant job with the characterizations. I LOVED her take on Keiko’s terrible circle of brunch friends. #teamkeiko4ever
August 6, 2020 at 8:05 PM
Oooh, I hadn’t even looked at it on audio! Thanks for the tip, Jenny! I’m with you, the intense strangeness of Keiko is so appealing ❤️🥰
August 4, 2020 at 9:51 PM
This book was SO strange, and I never felt like I had a good grip on it, but in the best way. I loved Keiko and her strangeness. It made me so excited to read more by this author! (And also so glad that I got over my nervousness about reading books in translation.)
August 6, 2020 at 8:04 PM
I’m super excited for her next one! And super excited for YOU discovering the wonderful world of books in translation! 😉 x
August 5, 2020 at 5:35 PM
Crikey after a long time as a young person in a whole range of retail outlets and actually enjoying that more than a lot of things I’ve done since this has some kind of appeal to me. One to look at when the studying has slowed down a bit
August 6, 2020 at 8:03 PM
This one is super short, so I’m sure you could squeeze it in around the study, Phil! 😉 Enjoy!
August 13, 2020 at 7:38 AM
Great review. I loved this book–I read/reviewed it last year.
August 13, 2020 at 8:32 PM
You have excellent taste, Lisa! 😉