Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – an unforgettable character and a thought-provoking story

I picked up Convenience Store Woman for another challenge in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme (see previous post). This challenge requires you to read a book in translation. I could have picked any number of nail-biting, atmospheric Scandi-noir mysteries, but opted for a Japanese novel instead. And this one’s been on my radar for a while.

The narrator, Keiko Furukura, isn’t like anybody else she knows. She has no idea how to fit in and this is apparent early as a young child. Her parents and sister worry about her – she has no friends – because she just can’t seem to pick up the norms of social interaction. Strangely, when Keiko is a university student, she is rescued by the opening of a convenience store. She applies for a job and soon she’s learning how to greet customers, what to say to invite them to buy, how to mirror the appropriate facial expressions to be good at making sales. The store’s training regime leaves no room for the randomness of individual personalities.

At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine in society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.

But now, eighteen years later, Keiko’s still at the convenience store, doing a job normally filled by immigrants, students and transients looking for a stop-gap position before moving on. She’s had several managers including Mrs Izumi, a woman of the same age. It’s OK to have a job in a convenience store if you’re married with children, it seems.

Keiko checks out the brands of Mrs Izumi’s shoes and discovers where she shops so that she can buy similar clothing. She copies the slang she learns from other co-workers to sound more natural. This comes in handy as recently she’s been meeting up with some old classmates. But even though she’s learnt to parrot socially acceptable phrases and dress stylishly, her women friends still nag her about her job and not having a husband. The pressure to change forces Keiko to do something drastic.

Convenience Store Woman is a clever social commentary, almost an anthropological study of the conventions surrounding human behaviour, seen through the eyes of someone outside the norm. It is at times very funny, capturing the excruciating awkwardness of Keiko who would probably not arouse so much concern if she had a ‘proper’ job. She could just be a likeable eccentric – even though it is her shop job that has given her a place in the scheme of things. It makes you realise how society depends on everyone doing things a particular way, which is also a little disturbing.

Convenience Store Woman is a quick read, partly because it’s a small book, but also because it has you racing through the pages to see what happens next. And it’s so entertaining. Keiko is such a brilliant character, more interesting than likeable, but she’s someone you want to cheer for. The book is the English debut for Sayaka Murata who has written many books and won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s premier literary award. Her next book in translation, Earthlings, also looks well worth checking out too. Convenience Store Woman gets four out of five from me.