Published in 2018 by Portobello Books / 163 pages / Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Opening sentence: “A convenience store is a world of sound.”
I just love, love, love quirky, quick books like this. I started reading and thought, ‘I’ll stop at the end of this chapter’ but… there are no chapters, it is continuous prose and I was about half way through before it dawned on me. By that point I was completely sucked in, so kept on reading. Always a good sign, wouldn’t you agree?
Convenience Store Woman is a wonderfully off-beat yet deliciously dark tale about a woman whom society deems ‘not normal’, simply because she makes life choices that go against the grain. Persecution of anything / anyone who does not fit the sanctioned mould of society is the main theme that the book explores really well, ‘The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects.’
Keiko Furukura starts a part-time job in a Tokyo convenience store when she is 18 and 18 years later she still works there, doing the same job. She has absolutely no issue with this, both for the fact that she loves her job and that she finds it difficult to know how society expects her to act. She needs cues to know how to behave, so the convenience store gives her grounding, routine and a way to live, as she says, ‘A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment.‘ Appearing ‘normal’ is very much an act for Keiko, but she does try to fit in for survival purposes, ‘As long as you wear the skin of what’s considered an ordinary person and follow the manual, you won’t be driven out of the village or treated as a burden.‘
However, it does grate on her that everyone she knows thinks it’s strange that at the age of 36 she is unmarried with no children, still works in the convenience store and hasn’t tried to carve out a career for herself, ‘When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck.‘ This all makes for a very complex and interesting character who you root for and care about.
The book’s critique of society’s priorities is perfectly captured in Keiko’s observation about her sister’s attitude towards her, ‘She’s 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.‘ Keiko is completely right – facade is still king in most societies, as long as you appear to be doing things like everyone else, no-one cares if you’re miserable. Coincidentally, I also recently wrote about this theme in my review of The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, a modern re-telling of Vanity Fair, which even though is a very different book from Convenience Store Woman, is also all about the pressure of society wanting people to act a certain way, showing that whether it’s modern day Tokyo or 19th century England, the parallels between what society deems ‘normal’ are depressingly similar.
This is a sharp, lyrical read that makes its point superbly, gives you food for thought and a character that you’ll be thinking about for a while afterwards. Highly recommended!