Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is the story of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old woman who works in a convenience store. After 18 years, she views herself as an extension of the store and works there happily, but her family and society demand that she want more for herself.
In the opening pages, Keiko recounts several incidents from her childhood. These incidents unsettled her parents and teachers because while Keiko had no malicious intentions, they’re odd things to have done: she found a dead bird and wanted to cook it, broke up a fight by bashing a boy’s head with a spade, and pulled down a teacher’s skirt. Keiko is aware that her parents are concerned by her actions, but can’t understand why. She arrives at a solution:
My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate as ever. I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.
After this, the adults seemed relieved when I didn’t say a single word more than necessary or act on my own initiative. But as I got older, being so quiet apparently became a problem in itself. (18-19)
When the reader meets Keiko in the Smile Mart, she has spent the last 18 years mimicking her coworkers’ actions and clothing, and anticipating the store’s every need. She knows how to arrange food according to which flavors sell best, and what it means when a customer jingles their change a particular way. Most of all, she’s relieved to finally have a precise script for all interactions. When she reminisces about the day the store opened, she says it’s the day she became “a normal cog in society.” (25)
But no matter how confident and content she feels in her job, her family and friends want to know what’s next. How can she not want a better job? How can she not have a husband and children? Strangely, and somewhat awkwardly, no one is able to articulate why she should want these things. It’s simply that getting married is the done thing, the obvious thing, but it’s not obvious to Keiko:
“You can’t go on like this, and deep down you must be getting desperate, no? Once you get past a certain age it’ll be too late.”
“I can’t go on like this? You mean I shouldn’t be living the way I am now? Why do you say that?”
I genuinely wanted to know, but I heard Minho’s husband mutter in a low voice: “Oh, for crying out loud.” (68)
Nothing makes people as uncomfortable as Keiko’s comfort with herself. Their bewilderment is occasionally funny, but sad, too. When a strange series of events results in a man living in Keiko’s bathroom, her family and friends are over the moon with the possibility that Keiko might finally be “normal.” It doesn’t matter that they know nothing about him, it’s enough that he’s a man and living with her:
“Keiko, I’m so happy for you. You’ve been struggling for so long, but at last you’ve found someone who understands…”
She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might just as well have been saying I was “cured.” If it had been that simple all along, I thought, I wish she’d given me clear instructions before, then I wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to find out how to be normal. (81)
And if being normal means pretending the man in the bathroom might be a romantic partner, then why not play along? Keiko’s eagerness to do whatever is most “normal” gives the book a sad edge. Her persistence in staying at the store and doing what makes her life feel complete and happy is admirable, and it’s tragic that she questions whether normalcy might be worth more than contentment. She’s able to support herself and she’s not causing anyone harm, but it pains her that her family disapproves and she’s concerned with what might happen if she doesn’t change:
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me. (69)
Though it’s not obvious from the quotes given here, there’s a fair amount of humor in this book. There’s the contrast between Keiko’s matter-of-fact delivery and the befuddlement of her audience, but more than that this book pokes at the ridiculous nature of these societal expectations. No one can tell her why it’s so important to marry and have children. No one can tell her why she should leave a place that makes her happy—they just feel strongly that she should.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) If I had written this review immediately after reading this book, I wouldn’t rate it so highly. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s a short book, to the point, and uniquely affecting. I think there’s also a lot of room for a range of reading experiences—it’s a very dark story from certain angles, and warmer and funnier from others.
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