Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review


“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Having read Convenience Store Woman 4 times in 2 years it is safe to say that I find it to be a really ingenious work. Convenience Store Woman‘s slender size, its genial yet absurd storyline, and its deadpan humor belie just how subversive a novel it is. An easy, if I admit somewhat lazy, description of Convenience Store Woman and its narrator would include words like ‘weird’ & ‘quirky’. Case in point, in my original review for this novel I used words such as bizarre & outlandish when talking about some of Keiko’s thoughts & views…now that I am more familiar with the text however I found her voice and inner monologue to be far more ‘normal’ then the supposedly ‘normal’ people around her, people who have painfully constricting worldviews and rarely question why they think or behave in a certain way (mimicking normalcy for normalcy’s sake). But it is Keiko who is labelled ‘abnormal’ & a ‘foreign object’, and routinely othered by the invasive questions and comments made by the ppl in her life (on why she is single, why she doesn’t want to marry or have children, why doesn’t she have a ‘proper’ career, why she reacts ‘differently’ from others, etc). Murata however allows us to make our own impression of Keiko and shows us how superficial & thought-less the people who brand her ‘abnormal’ are.

Autistic-coded Keiko Furukura is a thirty-six-year-old woman who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. Other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko however has no desire to change (herself or her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by emulating their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship). I loved that although Keiko is aware of how others see her as ‘odd’, she doesn’t question why that is or believes that there is truly something wrong with her (rather she realizes that it is her society who deems her ‘abnormal’ simply because she is neither interest in pursuing a ‘proper’ career nor does she wish to become a housewife).

Her clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages, she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird they found in the park, and her recollection manages to be both upbeat yet somewhat uneasy.

Despite living in a deeply alienating society, her voice retains a certain optimism that counterbalances her often depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling experiences. We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally have hated and still hate doing these kinds of things, Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity). Curiously enough, while the novel clearly has a strong anti-capitalist message, Keiko is by no means Marx’s ‘alienated worker’ as feels deeply satisfied and connected to every aspect of her job. Through Keiko’s perspective ordinary moments, interactions, conversations and ideas are presented to us in a way that challenges established binaries. While most of the people, with the exception of a misogynistic male colleague who spouts the kind of sh*t you’d expect from an incel or a manosphere enthusiast (he is of the belief that women have it easier today but also reminds keiko that her ‘unmarried’ status and job make her the ‘lowest of the low’). I loved how non-plussed & unruffled Keiko is by his infuriating remarks. I appreciated the reversal of the usual roles (so he is shown to be emotional, with his bursts of anger etc, whereas she is far more unbothered and doesn’t take things as personally as he does). Despite the clarity of her inner monologue, certain facets of Keiko’s character remain unknown to us. This lends the story a peculiar quality, as we don’t always understand why she has certain stances. Nevertheless, we also do come to understand her devotion to the store and her attempts to ‘cure’ herself of her ‘difference’ despite not understanding or believing that she needs ‘curing’ to begin with. In many ways, the store insulates her from a reality that is othered, as it is only at the store that she feels like a ‘person’, even if this ‘person’ is a construct of sorts (as she adopts the mannerisms, styles, way of speaking of her colleagues). She raises some valid points on the way most people imitate each other without realizing, on the dangers of ‘herd mentalities’, on the way labels & norms can stifle us, and so forth. Keiko’s voice struck me as irreverent yet lucid, and her observations on Japanese social and gender norms, existing notions of normalcy, and the wide reaches of misogyny were incredibly insightful. Sure, the ‘village’ metaphor was rather on the nose, but I found that it fitted with the story’s playful yet sharp tone. Through the course of Keiko’s narration, Murata emphasized the absurdities of our modern age (in particular today’s work culture, social conformism, the pressure Japanese society places on single women, and alienation). Boasting a snappy prose and a thought-provoking social commentary, Convenience Store Woman makes for a deeply engrossing novel. Keiko’s slightly ‘off-kilter’ reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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