Portobello Books have already had success with Japanese fiction in the form of Hiromi Kawakami’s novels Strange Weather in Tokyo (AKA The Briefcase) and The Nakano Thrift Shop, and that trend looks set to continue this year. Not only is there a new book from Yoko Tawada to look forward to very soon, but they’re also treating us to the full-length English-language debut of another interesting contemporary writer. Her short novel looks at the stressful nature of modern society, examining what happens when people are left alone to make their own choices – or, more tellingly, when they’re not…
Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short, quirky novel focusing on the woman of the title, Keiko Furukura. Having found sanctuary in one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores after graduating from university, she has managed to stay there ever since, avoiding having to deal with a world that she doesn’t understand (and certainly doesn’t understand her). After eighteen years in the business, she has adapted her daily routine to the rhythm of the store, and she wants nothing more than to continue in her job indefinitely.
However, it seems that Keiko’s luck is about to run out. At a barbecue with friends, her usual excuses for her lack of success in work and love are shoved aside, and even her long-suffering sister is starting to get anxious. It’s lucky, then, that this is the time when a new worker, Shiraha, appears at her store. He’s not the hardest of workers, or the best of people, but he might just be what Keiko needs to get everyone off her back…
Anyone with more than a passing interest in Japanese culture and society will know that standing out isn’t the done thing, and Convenience Store Woman takes this idea to the next level by telling the tale of a woman who not only doesn’t want to fit in but wouldn’t have a clue how to. Keiko is not your typical thirty-something (in fact, it’s tempting to say she’s not your neurotypical thirty-something), and there are several instances in the story of her struggles to understand and empathise with the people around her. One example comes from her childhood, in the form of an anecdote of her hitting two boys with a spade as it’s the best way she can think of to stop them fighting.
The convenience store, then, is her sanctuary, and getting up to go to work each morning is the only thing providing her with a purpose in a confusing world:
The morning period is passing normally in the brightly lit box of the convenience store, I feel. Visible outside the windows, polished free of fingerprints, are the figures of people rushing by. It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.
p.4 (Portobello Books, 2018)
It’s easy to see how she feels comforted by a familiar environment, having never belonged in the outside world, with manageable differences within a structured framework allowing her to get a grip on life.
Keiko comes across as an amusing, hard-working person who is tolerated more than accepted. Her friends wonder why she doesn’t date while her coworkers are amazed at how she never gets angry. Murata develops her character wonderfully, though, by subtly slipping less jolly aspects of Keiko’s personality into the story:
The baby started to cry. My sister hurriedly picked him up and tried to soothe him. What a lot of hassle I thought. I looked at the small knife we’d used to cut the cake still lying there on the table: if it was just a matter of making him quiet, it would be easy enough. My sister cuddled him tightly to her. Watching them, I wiped some cream from the cake off my lip. (p.57)
The sympathy we find for her is occasionally tried in this manner by the realisation that she really is different to most people.
The crux of the story is her decision to get her friends and family off her back by hooking up, on the surface, at least, with the pathetic Shiraha, a man who struggles just as much with society as she does, if for different reasons. Lazy and deluded, he believes that the world has it in for him, and his idea of a sanctuary is anywhere where food and board are provided, leaving him to think big and build his castles in the air. He’s far from an attractive character, in body and personality, but Keiko sees him as a way to compromise between her needs and the demands of the world, a necessary evil in her little world.
Convenience Store Woman is Murata’s first full-length work in English (her story ‘A Clean Marriage’ was included in Granta 127: Japan), and there’s lots to enjoy about it. We are treated to the daily and seasonal rhythm of the convenience store, including the influence of the weather on sales, and on customer behaviour. Of course, the main drawcard is Keiko herself, with Tapley Takemori providing an excellent voice for Murata’s detailed creation. The writer shows us how the convenience-store worker takes her cues from the world around her, imitating the speech patterns of her coworkers, not to mention their clothes and style ideas, in an attempt to stand out just a little less.
It all makes for a short, perhaps even a little too short, entertaining story, one examining what is less a mid-life crisis than a belated realisation:
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. (pp.80/1)
That’s certainly food for thought, but is this acceptance really worth giving up your independence for? I’m not so sure, and neither is Keiko. As you’ll see, you can easily take the woman out of the convenience store, but taking the convenience store out of the woman is another matter entirely…