Pandemic Page-turners – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

If I could highlight one positive about living through a pandemic it’s that I’ve been able to catch up on some reading. I imagine that I’m not alone. I’m an existence perfectly attuned for lockdowns and isolation. Providing I have books.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to dust off the blog to write about some of the good stuff that I’ve been reading lately. If you’re stuck for things to read I hope this helps.

I’ve read two books by Sayaka Murata so far and Convenience Store Woman was my gateway. So it’ll be the first one I write about.

Sayaka Murata is a quirky author. I’ve not read anything quite like her books. Her characters are odd, they are different and they stand out. They have problems with society and they have a point.

One of the many interesting things about Convenience Store Woman is how relatable some of her grievances with society are. She is an artist when it comes to taking banal moments and twisting them to produce something dark and surreal. This holds true for her sophomore effort ‘Earthlings’ too, but Convenience Store Woman is where she mastered it.

Murata delves into conformity and socially normative behaviour, along with sexual and gender politics. She muses upon the moulds that adults are expected to fit. She questions them in ways that often render them absurd and confining. They are presented as a force that is exerted. There is a Japanese saying that aptly sums up the notion here – ‘the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down’. When a point is to be made about being different this saying will often be applied. Where someone is different or unusual, there will be resistance to it. This holds true for people anywhere. This book is a case of the nail resisting the hammer.

In the eponymous Convenience Store Woman Keiko Furukura’s case, the expectation as a woman in her thirties is to find a husband, leave her part time job and have children. This quiet and insidious pressure worms its way through Keiko’s story. Murata does a great job inverting things so that the ‘normal’ people’s interest in her life becomes grotesque and their prurient curiosity grates against Keiko’s utter lack of interest.

While weathering this pressure Keiko reflects on the refuge she found in working for a convenience store. This is the meat of the novel. The world inside the store makes sense to her. There is order. There are clear instructions on what she must do. She models her behaviour after the corporate training for employees when dealing with customers. She selectively mimics the behaviour and speech patterns of co-workers. This is how she navigates social situations that baffle her. She finds a sense of belonging after spending her early years adrift in a sea of social confusion. She is a part of the convenience store machine, and it soothes her.

She has learned through her family that to be herself would mean upsetting and confusing them, in the same way that their lives confuse her. She has a painfully pragmatic attitude – she understands herself just as she understands that the people around her do not.

The book charts Keiko’s personal revelations and growth while navigating the burdens of other people’s expectations. It is an entertaining ride. The book is a rallying cry for people that wish to live their lives on their own terms.

Convenience Store Woman is excellent debut. It is dark, funny, ironic and charming. It has a knack to get you thinking about how you relate to other people and why. Everybody should reflect on that sometimes.