A Review of Sayaka Murata’s “Convenience Store Woman”

A Short But Captivating Novel

“Convenience Store Woman” Book Cover

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was a huge hit in Japan, selling some 660,000 copies in the country alone. Now it arrives on western shores in an English translation, and this short, charming and delightful novel that has a simple story to tell should make it Japan’s answer to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The story is about a convenience store worker named Keiko Furukura who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome-like symptoms. She’s 36 years old and the past half of her life has been dominated by the store. She is a perfect worker, always polite and enthusiastic about her role. The problem is Japanese society puts the convenience store worker at near the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and her family and friends worry about her — worry about her not finding a “normal” job or falling in love with a man she can marry. About halfway through the book, she meets a fellow former convenience store worker who is male and is very embittered about his lot in life. The two decide to live together and it becomes something of a relationship of convenience — no pun intended. Keiko’s family and friends are relived that’s she’s found a man, while the now unemployed young man leeches off a woman who has no higher calling in life. Will Keiko find true happiness with the man, if not a greater sense of purpose?

That’s basically it in a nutshell, and I’m afraid to say more about an easily spoiled book. This is simple storytelling at its finest. You can easily read the entire book, front to back, in one sitting. I suspect that it is popular in Japan because of its warmth and humour, and because it speaks to the direction of Japanese society, and that outsiders really have little place within it. It’ll be seen whether American and Canadian audiences take to the book in the same way, considering the United States has an outsider in a President and, in Ontario, where I live, one can easily aspire to be Premier of the province simply by being an alleged drug trafficker. Still, the book raises some very salient points about Japanese society and whether one can truly fit in if you’re a little Sheldon Cooper-ish. It is a book about the place of the mentally ill, and what constitutes as normality.

Much of the book’s funny bit come from the struggle of Keiko to fit in. She parrots the behaviours and fashion styles of her coworkers. She does things literally by the book. She knows how to run a convenience store and nothing else. She doesn’t know how to relate to men, so her relationship is something of a surrogate one. However, by book’s end, and without wanting to give anything big away, Keiko learns where her place is, and it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. That form of individualism must be appealing to the Japanese to take such a liking to this book — after all, Japan strikes me as a country of drone-like people who tirelessly try to climb the corporate ladder, so they can make more money, get married and raise a family. Anything outside of those bounds is, well, bound to be strange and alien. Convenience Store Women asks the question of whether one can be truly an individual in a society, and a mentally ill one at that in some ways, that favours people being chirpy, tireless drones who will do anything that is asked of them.

The English translation retains the flavour of the Japanese, as there are still foreign words left inserted, but it is a sprite-y read and easy to understand. The sentences are short and simple, and the plot offers very little in the way of complications. I see this book working very well as a movie, if some things can be padded out to a feature film running length. It has an easygoing nature, and paints its heroine as, yes, an individual with obviously a touch of autism, but she’s likable. I hope that the novel can break stigmas for those who are impaired with Keiko’s otherwise unnamed ailment and show the world that the mentally ill can hold down jobs and forge friendships like any other person.

Aside from all of that, is Convenience Store Woman a literary read? Well, it’s not pretentious if that’s what you mean by literary. This is simply a well-told short tale that feels more like a novella (it clocks in at 176 pages) and there’s not a lot of meat to it. I’m trying desperately to not merely pad out a review to some 1,000 words as I usually do because there’s not a whole lot that you can say about this book without ruining the sweet ending. Still, it is a very “populist” read in a sense that shows even the smallest of worker drones have their place in the world and can yield a lot of power in simply following the rules and being polite and mannered to make someone else’s day feel a whole lot brighter. I really was swept away by this tale and found it utterly mesmerizing. If anything, Murata joins the ranks of fellow Japanese writer Haruki Murakami even though they don’t really share the same style and she writes more from the feminine perspective. In any event, Convenience Store Woman is a thoroughly captivating read and you’ll be sad that its so short. There’s a lot more that could be said about the world that Keiko inhabits, and the book — given its brevity — is the sort of one that leaves you wanting more. There’s a lot of sweetness and magic here. Those who love contemporary Japanese literature will find lots to savour in these brief pages. I’m drooling even just thinking about this book.

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman will be published by Grove Press on June 12, 2018.

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