Something a bit out of the ordinary: ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

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The first thing I loved about this book was the title.  After so many Girl novels recently (whether they have tattoos, kick dangerous things, travel on trains or are simply Gone), it was incredibly refreshing to find a book that didn’t feel the need to infantalize its protagonist.

As it happens, the age of the narrator is something of a plot point.  Keiko is no longer a girl, she has been working at the same convenience store since she was a university student and, although finding complete fulfilment in this, her friends and family are increasingly insistent that it’s time for her to move on, to mature.  The joy of the book comes from Keiko’s response to these pressures.  She knows her life would be easier if she had an answer to questions like ‘why are single and working a minimum-wage job?’ She also knows that the truth, ‘because I enjoy it and need nothing more’ will not be accepted.  The short novel follows her attempt to demonstrate compliance, while still staying true to herself.  This will require some changes to her, currently perfect, routine, but she sees it as an investment for the future.  Like those around her, Keiko knows she won’t be able to work in a convenience store for ever.  As always however, her reasons are slightly different, she knows her work requires good mobility and the acceptance of a rubbish pension.  The good times won’t last and she wants to be prepared.

‘Convenience Store Woman’ is dry, poignant and very very funny.  Keiko is as emotionally isolated from society as Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and is equally compelling, though considerably more knowing and accommodating. We learn early on that a reason she thrives at work is the routine behaviour, with clear directions on how to interact with other humans, be they customers or co-workers.  In sections that are both funny and poignant we are told how she consciously adapts her clothing and habits to imitate successful colleagues.  This is perfectly normal behaviour, but what makes Murata’s heroine exceptional is the bemused dedication behind it.

Keiko’s story is both fresh and familiar, taking everyday human experiences, finding joy in them and then deconstructing them through a wry outsider lens.  Extremely highly recommended if you want to read something new, or take a new look at the familiar routines and pressures that surround us all.

This entry was posted in Japanese Literature, Reading in translation, Sayaka Murata, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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