The first in our newest series exploring up and coming literary talent.
The protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s debut novel, Convenience Store Woman, lives an objectively mundane life. Having worked at the local 24-hour store for over a decade, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura has never had a relationship, or even another boss, and lives in a tiny studio apartment near her place of work. If that sentence makes you feel a bit sad, don’t be - Keiko relishes in every part of her job, from laying out the hot breakfast snacks, to stacking the products neatly on the shelves in exactly the same way as the training video. She never fails to shout "Irasshaimasé!" to every loyal customer that passes through the store, even if they sometimes ask her why she hasn’t left her current, and only, job.
Keiko lives and breathes her job, to the point that she doesn’t stop thinking about it once she clocks off for the day. At home, she keeps an eye on her watch and imagines what could be happening at the store at that particular hour. Once she has eaten her evening meal (purchased from her beloved place of work), she goes to bed, and dreams of the bright artificial lighting and the sound of the till as she rings through each order. On the rare occasion that she attends social gatherings, she longs to be behind the till, keeping an eye on the exchange of stock. To her, this is a far more productive way to spend her time than constantly having to dodge questions about her personal life from people who have no business knowing about it. Keiko doesn’t quite grasp why people in her life have marriages, high-flying careers, and children - surely it is enough to be good at her job, and pass as a normal cog in society?
While it might seem odd to relate to a 36-year-old Japanese woman with no life, and no desire for one either, I think the book articulates a feeling that we all have. Why should we give in to the relentless idea that the only way to be happy is to marry, have a high-flying career, and 2.5 children? The book convincingly argues that there is no need to subscribe to the idea that we all have to fit into a cookie cutter mould of a “successful” person. On the face of it, Keiko’s life is sad and dystopian, and certainly nothing to aspire to. But what is actually more dystopian is the rigid and expected social progression of university — career — marriage — children. In Keiko’s world, any dissenters to this ideal are shunned and tagged as “sad and lonely”. It might not be as extreme as this in the UK, and the idea of being childless has been gaining more traction lately, as many women don’t see that in their future. But there is still a pervasive idea that it is undesirable and odd to work in a menial, low-paying job, and to be happy doing that. Murata’s book is a small drop in the ocean, advocating for people who are quite happy to live a simple life, and nothing more. Aside from its unconventional, feminist tone, Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious read. At just 163 pages, it is packed full of laugh out loud moments.I found this story to be an ideal accompaniment to my strict sixth month of lockdown. At home, our days now consist of the same rota, day in day out. Or maybe that’s just me! Murata’s book encouraged me to consider a differevnt way of thinking - maybe a simple life isn’t so terrible! There is less complication, stress, and things to worry about when you focus on only yourself and keeping your plants alive. It was refreshing to follow a character who had absolutely no interest in a relationship or in a high-paying job, things that people just expected everyone to want in her life. Convenience Store Woman is an offbeat, bizarre, and outlandish book. It may be about a “simple” life, but it’s anything but dreary.
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