Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata; Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Keiko Furukura’s family has tried for years to cure her. When she was a child, her parents took her to a therapist. Her younger sister adored her because she didn’t care for toys or candy and would indifferently hand them over when asked. Keiko realized that she was not like other children. As an adult, she wants to fit in to the idea of normal that her parents and sister expect of her. By chance, while she is attending university, she walks by a newly completed convenience store and writes down the phone number listed on the “help wanted” sign. She succeeds in getting a job there, which makes her family happy, and continues to work there for 18 years, which does not.
In the convenience store, Keiko learns a set of rules to govern her behavior. She can mimic her coworkers’ way of speaking and dressing, repeat the loud greetings from the training video, and figure out the logical way the store works during each season, how cold drinks might sell one day and discounted prepared foods on another day. She has a knack for creating the right ambiance, for restocking shelves during the lunchtime rush, and for reading customers’ actions to determine when they might be ready to pay for their items. The interior of the store follows a set pattern of sounds and expectations. Each night, Keiko thinks of the “music” of the store; it lulls her to sleep.
Although she is content with her life, taking her existence as a convenience store worker very seriously, her few friends and family cannot understand why she doesn’t want to get married or pursue a more serious career. They all want her to make an effort to be normal. Keiko doesn’t mind trying, but, frankly, she needs the process for change spelled out for her. Her life in the convenience store follows a strict routine, and she can’t fathom what step to take next to make those around her pleased with her.
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.
After a span of time in which she is asked 14 times why she is not married and 12 times why she doesn’t have a better job, she decides to tackle the logically bigger problem first: marriage.
Enter Shiraha, a former coworker who was fired. He had been stalking coworkers and customers looking for a wife. Keiko is wise enough to recognize the predatory nature of his behavior, but he needs a place to stay and she needs to convince those around her that she’s normal. She decides to try an experiment. She invites Shiraha to live with her, as if he were her pet (she refers to his food as “feed”), letting him sleep in the bath, and calls her sister to test her reaction. She’s thrilled! And so are the rest of Keiko’s acquaintances. She tells them the basics, that she is living with an unemployed man (which is technically true), and they make up the story of a tortured love affair themselves. Shiraha is an awful person, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the people who want Keiko to get better. He looks down on Keiko and goes on and on about how nothing has changed in society since the Stone Age:
“This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.”
As people start treating Keiko like a “normal person”, commenting on her personal life at work, inviting her out for drinks, and giving her advice, she begins to wonder what she has given up in order to meet societal expectations. And those sacrifices just keep growing as more is expected of her. What will Keiko do? This is the story of love between a woman and a convenience store, and as a reader you just kind of have to go with it.
Convenience Store Woman was a quick read. I finished it in about a day and enjoyed the quirky narrator, her views of the world, and the way she reacts to those around her. Murata deals with issues of identity and society in an interesting, though sometimes too simplistic, way. I felt indignant on Keiko’s behalf for much of the book. Most of all, however, I wish I could visit a Japanese convenience store, whose bright displays and tasty food sound nothing at all like my local stores. Murata does a marvelous job of describing the convenience store, the unusual hum and rhythm of daily life that goes on in the glass aquarium-like walls, an atmosphere so enticing that perhaps it’s not so crazy that a woman working there could fall in love with its capitalistic routine.