So ‘Convenience Store Woman’… No no, I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about the book by Sayaka Murata (although it is relatable considering I am in fact a ‘convenience store woman’).
The book has has glowing reviews from Sally Rooney, The New Yorker, The Guardian… Even bloody Vogue referred to it as, “intoxicating as a sake mojito”. So when I saw this book a while back in my favourite independent bookshop (City Books represent), I had to pick it up.
For starters, I am writing a book about life working in a bar (back when I had a bar job pre-covid, RIP), so I thought I would could scout the competition, from this woman in a convenience store, get a few tips maybe. The book is fiction, but I was interested in how she would set the scene etc. etc…. And also y’know… I like reading and I’ve got a lot of free time at the moment…
The book discusses the life of Keiko, a 36 year old woman working in a convenience store, who doesn’t fit in with the ‘normal world’. She struggles with how she should act in every day life, and has accepted that she’s been weird since she was a child.
Keiko describes growing up; asking her mother if they should take a dead bird home from the park and cook it for her father. When her mum is appalled by this idea, Keiko doesn’t understand- it’s just like eating other birds for meat? As a reader, you can understand her logical thinking, whilst also cringing at her lack of social awareness. You are also invited to feel sympathy for Keiko who doesn’t understand why she isn’t ‘normal’. The reader can also relate to family members frustrations, however, when Keiko describes her thoughts of stabbing her baby nephew, as a way to stop him from crying.
The book describes Keiko’s life: turning up to the convenience store every day, eating boiled vegetables every night, and getting a full nights sleep so she can be in perfect condition for the convenience store the next day. The book then describes what happens when friends and family are shocked that she has still never had a partner, and isn’t making any effort to leave her ‘dead end job’.
Keiko moves a fellow ‘weirdo’ into her flat, to stop family and friends from grilling them about their lives. The weirdo: Shiraha is portrayed as a bit of a loser- someone who doesn’t regularly shower, who complains about how difficult it is to be a man in this day and age; avoids paying rent and is a lazy worker who soon gets fired from his job at the convenience store. His deluded quote: “We men have it much harder than women you know” sums him up nicely *eye roll*. Keiko relates to him as an outsider, but doesn’t really like him either (he’s a shitty person let’s be honest).
The book explores the idea that certain jobs in society are not respected, or even considered ‘real jobs’. Jobs within retail, bar work, cleaning jobs are considered often lesser jobs that are only appropriate as a gap filler, or to make some money alongside studying for a degree. Throughout the book, Murata makes it clear that Keiko’s character loves her job and working there is the only time she’s felt ‘normal’ in her life, so is confused as to why she should get a new job. Keiko asks one friend, “I can’t go on like this? You mean I shouldn’t be living the way I am now? Why do you say that?” The friend ‘mutters in a low voice, “oh for crying out loud”‘, as if obvious to everyone why she should change her life and conform to societal norms.
The book later describes the fact that Keiko’s sister instantly ‘congratulates’ Keiko when she announces a man is staying at her flat, without asking if she feels safe or even if he’s nice, and immediately asks if the two are going to get married. This is another moment which emphasises societal pressure, this time the pressure women to get married, and shows her sister as putting societal norms over Keiko’s happiness. This is emphasised when her sister later selfishly exclaims, “Will you ever be cured, Keiko… How much longer must I put up with this?”
Keiko is clearly asexual, or aromantic at least, making it clear she has no interest in sex or marriage whatsoever. Yet those who claim to care about her don’t consider this a possibility. She doesn’t care when Shiraha states, “you’re the lowest of the low,” and later that, “[her] womb is probably too old to be of any use,” showing Keiko has no desire to get married and have kids. This quote comments on the idea that women in their mid – late 30s should have settled down with kids, after attracting a man with her looks, again showing Keiko as the outsider, the weirdo. Shiraha’s quote: “people who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know,” shows that despite the fact he is a massive dick, he understands the role of the outsider well.
When Shiraha eventually convinces Keiko to quit her beloved convenience store job, to fit in (and so she’ll have more money to cover both their living costs). This is relatable to many people who work hard to get certain jobs to please their parents: roles as doctors, lawyers etc. And that family members will favour their child being ‘normal’ over being happy. The delightful Shiraha comes out with a harsh view similar to what may be viewed by other members of society: “you [aren’t] earning money like a man… You’re just a burden on the village, the dregs of society”. Many graduates can relate to this, with parents questioning why they haven’t got a ‘proper’ job yet, i.e. corporate jobs, or office jobs: essentially any more respected role. The dregs of society, could also refer to those who may claim benefits from the government, and are therefore outcasted by society.
The book itself was short: I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I enjoyed the comments on society, and the interesting character of Keiko. However, the plot didn’t really go anywhere for me. I understand that Keiko’s character is a convenience store worker, and that is all she’ll every be, however the character desperately wanted something more in her life, ‘deep down I wanted some kind of change… ‘ And the fact that she ended up drawn back to the convenience store seemed confusing to me. Keiko even states that, “any change would be better than the state of impasse I was in now.” Could this be the pressures of society making her think she wanted change from her convenience store? Or did she actually want more out of life?
The book was easy to read (I mentioned my speedy reading) and I liked the tone of voice, but I desperately sought more depth to the story. I felt bored at times, as if I were listening to her say, “Irasshaimasé!” for two hours straight, or clocking on for a dull day at work. I wanted her character to break out of the box more, and go against the norms of society, more than just continuing to work at a convenience store. I wanted the character to truly feel some happiness.
But nevertheless, there were some good bits to the story, and I’ll finish this with the thought-provoking quote: “Our society doesn’t allow any foreign objects.”
Thanks for reading!