Arts Books Muse

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman

Malu Rocha on the lessons this short novel can teach us about conformity and the (un)importance of social norms

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Image Credit: Granta Books, 2019

Let’s start this by asking a simple question; why do we read
books? Arguably the main purpose of it is to entertain ourselves, right? And
arguably another reason is to be transported to exciting fictional worlds,
right? When I picked up Convenience Store Woman, I asked myself how on earth I
could be entertained by a 30-something year woman stuck at a dead-end job and
why on earth would I want to be transported to the thrilling adventures of a
simple corner shop. Surprisingly, that is exactly why I bought this book and I
am glad I did. Most authors can make theme park adventures, island shipwrecks,
car chases and forbidden love stories exciting. But very few writers can entice
you with the day to day life in a convenience store and make it into a page
turner, and honestly that is the beauty of it.

Sayaka Murata is a best-selling Japanese author, with Convenience
Store Woman being the first of her novels to be translated to English. She has
worked in a convenience store herself for nearly eighteen years, which explains
the level of detail put into her descriptions. ‘When I can’t sleep, I think
about the transparent glass box that is still stirring with life even in the
darkness of night. That pristine aquarium is still operating like clockwork. As
I visualize the scene, the sounds of the store reverberate in my eardrums and
lull me to sleep.’ Now if that isn’t vivid storytelling, I don’t know what is.

Convenience Store Woman follows (you guessed it) a woman who works
at a convenience store. Keiko Furukura has been working in the same corner shop
for almost two decades and is an exemplary employee; never calls in sick, is
always on time, and knows the layout of the store inside out. You would have
thought that after all this time setting the standards exceptionally high, she
would have been a multi-millionaire store owner by now. But that is not the
case. Keiko is still working the cash register, she is not yet married, and
feels she is running out of time to have a baby. Keiko is the proper embodiment
of staying in your comfort zone. But contrary to what the traditional American
dream and 99.9% of the population say, she teaches us that this is not
necessarily a bad thing.

Day in and day out we follow Keiko as she salutes every customer
with ‘irasshaimasé’ and a smile on her face. Her curiously weird way of
interacting with her co-workers and copying their vocal intonations in order to
fit in immediately draws you into her quirky and lovable personality. Through
a bit of corridor gossip, we soon learn that the convenience store is short
staffed and will happily hire anyone who comes strolling in flopping around an
averagely mediocre resume. Cue Shiraha.

Picture that co-worker you detest, the one you know isn’t pulling
their weight, the one that consistently steals your Tupperware lunch. That’s
Shiraha. He is a young (but not too young) rebellious (but not too rebellious)
slacker. A vanilla person, and frankly quite an annoying one at that. When
asked by the boss why he fails to accomplish simple tasks around the store, he
embarks on never-ending lectures about the misogynist Stone Age and how society
has succumbed to regress itself to it as an excuse for his behaviour, all with
an arrogant undertone.

However, the relationship between him and Keiko is compelling,
especially considering that it accurately serves as an illustration to pinpoint
a major issue in Japanese contemporary society today. Shiraha is expected to be
rich, successful and accompanied by a beautiful woman. Keiko is expected to be
that beautiful woman, married and with kids. Both yearn to escape the pressures
of these strict social standards, but for very different reasons. Shiraha wants
to become a full time slacker while Keiko needs to dive headfirst into her work
and become a cog in the machine by offering her services as a worker.

Don’t we all just love a good fictional story that not-so-subtly
tackles social issues? Convenience Store Woman depicts the social pressures of
being a single woman in your 30s in Japan. Last year, childbirth rates dropped
below one million for the first time ever since records began back in 1899,
according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. As a response to this
changing demographic, Japan’s Liberal Party MP Kato Kanji commented that women
should have multiple children since single women are a burden to society.

Keiko is a certified oddball, puzzled not only by these absurd
social norms, but also by basic human behaviour. Literary critics have even characterised
her as a friendly alien, and this could not be more fitting. Her misfit
personality is utterly fascinating and Sayaka’s description of Keiko’s thoughts
combined with her unsettling attempts at human interaction are weird as much as they are compelling.

At the end of the day, Keiko doesn’t understand why society at
large has blindly and simultaneously agreed to be constricted by unreasonable
and arbitrary rules. She questions them, and so should we. Without even
realising it, she shows us that we should discard social norms, especially the
ones we don’t agree with, even if that makes you an oddball. As one of the most
famous quotes from the novel reads, Keiko doesn’t understand why her sister is ‘far
happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than
she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.’ This is what we
can learn from Keiko, it’s very simple, happiness comes first.

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