In brief: Keiko knows that she’s not normal. Why would a normal woman work in a convenience store for 18 years? Why isn’t she married or climbing the career ladder? Maybe should make her own move to seem like everyone else…
The good: I loved the convenience store routines and detail.
The not-so-good: A fast read.
Why I chose it: I love Japanese fiction.
Year: 2018 (original Japanese edition 2016)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
I love Japanese fiction. I love Japanese convenience stores. So a novel that is Japanese and set primarily in a convenience store is a win-win situation for me. Convenience Store Woman is a quirky, slim novel that doesn’t just detail life as a convenience store worker but the pressure to fit in and be ‘normal’ in society. This is particularly important in Japanese society, where the focus is on society as a whole rather than an individual. So Keiko’s feeling of being different is magnified times a million.
Keiko is in her late thirties. She’s single, which would be acceptable if she was high on the corporate ladder, but she works part-time in a convenience store. (Part-time sounds like an Australian full-time to me, as she works five days a week on the day shift). Keiko has been told by her family that she isn’t normal. She relates childhood stories of responses to events that aren’t what you would usually expect from a child (but are actually pretty practical, even though they aren’t socially acceptable). Keiko finds the only place that she can be normal is in the convenience store. There, she knows the routine and exactly what to say. She has an eye for detail and is thoroughly organised. She is a dream employee. She has worked at the Smile Mart for 18 years and seen a number of managers and even more employees come and go. Smile Mart is Keiko’s safe spot…
But is it her happy place? After much nagging from her family and friends, Keiko decides she has to actually look normal from the outside. But as is her way, she does it in an odd fashion. Will she find what she wants? Or was her own grass greener than everyone else’s? The story is a quick read, but leaves the reader with much to ponder over. Should the individual fit with society? If they don’t, what are the consequences to all involved? What is happiness to each person? What is normal? Ginny Tapley Takemori has done a marvellous job of capturing the Japanese psyche and the bewilderment of Keiko’s feelings as ‘abnormal’. She also captures the wonder of the Japanese convenience store in all its glory. Convenience stores in Japan aren’t a place to buy the milk you forgot or dodgy coffee. You can find delicious, cheap meals; fancy chocolate and lollies and quality cosmetics and magazines and books. Presentation is everything (I once bought a banana with a bow tied around it, a rainbow parfait Kit Kat, a Shiseido mascara and a tetra pak of sake all in the same transaction) and the workers are helpful and unfailingly polite. Reading this novel brought back memories of scouring Lawson, 7-11 and Family Mart for goodies every day in Japan!
This is a wonderful read that is eccentric and lovable. I look forward to more of Sayaka Murata’s work being translated into English.