Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I read a fascinating book recently, a short novel by Japanese writer Sayaka Murata called Convenience Store Woman.  The cover is what initially captivated me, a bold yellow colour with a name tag on the front, and a blank-faced Japanese lady peering out (into my soul, I thought).  I was excited to read it, as I’ve read a couple of Japanese translations now – Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and ZOO, an incredible collection of horror stories by Otsuichi – all of which have impressed me.

Convenience Store Woman certainly stands out among the books I have read so far this year.  It is narrated by Keiko, a woman in her mid-30s who has been working in the same convenience store since it opened almost two decades before.  She knows the store well, it is like home for her, and there she can feel normal, the pressures of the outside world fading away.  Work is important to Keiko because her life hasn’t always been easy.  As a child, it became apparent that she was different from the other children, and she thought in a very different way.  Suppressing herself to fit in with society, the routine of the convenience store allowed her some normality, and she found peace within herself there.

Outside of her job, Keiko is constantly being nagged. When will you get married? When will you have a baby? When will you get a proper job? Friends and family are constantly pushing her, and she struggles to respond to these expectations. I loved the ideas of identity and society’s expectation being talked about in the context of a novel. This is something that often comes up in chick lits – the idea of the woman reasonably happy in herself, but her friends and family persuading her she needs more. However, when Keiko meets a man in the story, it doesn’t play out the way I was expecting.

I actually identified with Keiko a lot. As a woman, I am constantly asked whether I am married and when I will have children (soon, just not right now!). I also don’t really like weddings, which is a really controversial view for a woman to have! When Keiko also feels indifferent to these sorts of things, I was just thinking yes, yes, I relate to this so much! It was sad to see that nobody could accept Keiko’s choice to just work a part time job instead of having a family.

It isn’t hard to see that Keiko is likely to be on the Autistic spectrum, and it is curious that the author makes no mention of this in the book.  I didn’t know if this was the author’s choice, as the absence of a diagnosis adds an element of intrigue, especially when Keiko’s symptoms err on the side of psychopathic.  This was a little disappointing; perhaps the book would have been an opportunity to discuss these topics, but instead the reader is left with the feeling that if you don’t conform to society then you will never be truly accepted.

Overall, this is a fascinating read, but I would have liked to have seen Keiko developed a little further. Nevertheless, the author keeping us in the dark about what her condition may be makes us just like her family and friends – not truly understanding our protagonist and making our own judgements on what might be best for her; exactly what Keiko would despise about us if she knew.

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