‘A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums’.
Shayaka Murata’s newest novel, Convenience Store Woman, is a curious little thing. Chronicling the life of a 36-year-old Japanese woman who has been working at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years, Murata employs deadpan humour to highlight societies’ rigid expectations of people, and in particular women.
The convenience store – from its tinkling doorbell indicating the presence of customers to the uniquely fluorescent lighting and stock greetings – is a safe haven for protagonist Keiko Furukura. Having been a slightly odd child, which is beautifully and artfully captured in the opening chapter, it was with relief that her parents witness Keiko gain a job and become a fully-functioning, ‘normal’, member of society at the age of eighteen. However, they – and many others who have opinions on Keiko’s life – thought it would only be a temporary fix before she embarked on a ‘real career’.
Eighteen years later, aged thirty-six, Keiko is still working in the same convenience store in the exact same position that she was in as a teenager. With no desire to move up the corporate ladder, she dutifully clocks in and out six days a week, even volunteering to help out on her days off. All of her meals come from the Smile Mart and she even imagines herself as an integral part of the store’s interior, much like the magazine rack or the frozen food isle. It isn’t until the pressure to settle down mounts and she meets a like-minded, though repugnant, individual that Keiko takes drastic action, unsettling her carefully mapped-out routine that took years to craft.
What follows is a story that is both light and dark. On a superficial level, Murata’s writing is very stark with few details – there is no hidden meaning or depth to be found nestled between the lines. Whether this is due to the issues of translation, with its inability to capture slight subtleties, is unclear. However, there is beauty to this method and the style fits the character precisely. Keiko is a very straightforward person who struggles to understand her fellow peers. Unable to interact and have genuine connections with others, Keiko instead resorts to mimicking and mirroring those around her in order to imitate ‘normalcy’. Showing symptoms which could be an indication of Asperger’s Syndrome, Murata illuminates the economically ‘progressive’ society within Japan that doesn’t allow for difference.
Convenience Store Woman is a short read that I breezed through very quickly, though it didn’t have much of an affect on me overall. I appreciated the exploration of societal expectations, which is unfairly distributed amongst women more than men in most cultures. However, I found it really difficult to find anymore substance to the characters and the plot than what was laid out clearly for the reader. For an easy, gripping read Convenience Store Woman is the perfect choice.
‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata was published on 12th June. Thank you to Grove Atlantic, via Edelweiss+, for the review copy.