Updated: Jul 16, 2020
More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker. Even if that means I’m abnormal and can’t make a living and drop-down dead, I can’t escape that fact. My very cells exist for the convenience store.’
Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata is one of the best books I have read in the last year. I already reviewed it over on my Instagram (@read_between_the_linesblog), but I love it so much I feel it deserves a standalone, more in-depth review. The novel itself is quite simple, in fact, as my friends found out after I read it, it is almost impossible to describe without just repeating the title. It really, quite literally, is about a woman who works at a convenience store. Yet, to leave it there is a disservice to a book that is so much more.
Keiko is 36, she has never had a boyfriend and has worked at the same store for 18 years. Her store is her ‘happy place’ even if others are set to destroy this sanctity. Primarily the novel is about the joy we can all find in our own seemingly ‘mundane’ and ‘unsuccessful’ lives. Murata teaches us that life is what we make of it, and whatever makes us content is worth it, no matter what anyone else thinks.
To me, it is this sense of contentment that makes Convenience store woman such a key read. Murata captures just how society, particularly Japanese society, views success in terms of relationships and marriage. In a sad turn of events, Keiko ends up living with the unsavoury character of Shiraha. He is quite frankly, a lazy misogynist who exploits Keiko for his own gain. Yet, despite his slob like behaviour and attitude, her family is happy, merely because she is living with a man. This exterior ‘progression’ is explored in tandem with her job, another fact of despair for her family. Not only are they unhappy with her lack of partner but they see her job as unacceptable, even going as far as to make up an illness as an explanation for her lack of ‘career progression.’ It is here that Murata provides an insight into a feminist issue that many writers are yet to explore (in my opinion) with the same tenacity- the pressure to have it all. Convenience store woman, in ending with Keiko defying both Shiraha and her family by returning to the store and stating that she wants to live alone, shows us that this goal of ‘having it all’ is unnecessary, harms our wellbeing and is a product of modern society. Yet, above and beyond this Murata teaches us that were we to want to ‘have it all’ this is ok too, it is even ok to want a career and no partner, the list is endless, not prescriptive.
One of the most interesting aspects to arise from Convenience store woman is the issue of Keiko’s mental health. Having a quick scout of goodreads, you can barely move for reviews that question whether she has autism, or sociopathic tendencies (by no means linked.) Much of this stems from a few instances where her thoughts veer off to her childhood memories of not fitting in and/or darker thoughts (including one where she considers what it would be like to kill a baby.) However, although no one is suggesting these aren’t serious, Murata peppers them in before swiftly moving back to the wider story. They are of course aspects of Keiko that may point her out to be ‘abnormal’ and seem to require expansion, but we are left asking as a result what actually is normal? It seems that the whole point of these incidents is to serve in contrast to the world of the store, a world where she knows her routine, her place and her role. Yes, Keiko may have some issues, but Murata shows that the convenience store is her sanctuary, her place to ‘just be’ in a world that expects her to conform to ever-changing notions of normality. It is a message conveyed in a bittersweet and saddening way but nonetheless, challenges the way we view progression, attainment and its links to mental health.
If you are looking for a shorter read, that is slightly quirkier than your average novel then this is your book!