Book Review: Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a thirty-six year old single woman who has worked in the same small store in Tokyo since her university days. Keiko is content with her situation but her family and friends are unable to accept this. They do not understand why Keiko cannot conform to society’s expectations. She should be seeking a more acceptable career, finding herself a husband, perhaps having children. She is not regarded as normal, and it is they who need her to be.

Even as a child Keiko was considered strange. When other youngsters were upset at finding a dead bird, she suggested it could be eaten. When boys at school started fighting and others begged someone to stop them, Keiko fetched a spade and hit the miscreants over the head. Not understanding why she was then reprimanded, Keiko withdrew into herself and started observing other’s behaviour that she may copy how they went about their days. She would turn to her sister for advice when situations arose that she would have to deal with alone. Her family loved her but longed to find a cure for actions they regarded as inexplicable.

Keiko’s job at the convenience store suits her perfectly. There is a company manual that clearly sets out employee’s desired presentation, customer interaction and how tasks are to be completed. For other behaviours she has co-workers to emulate. Once in uniform she believes they are all cogs in a smooth running machine. She takes pride in her contribution and the role she plays.

A new recruit, Shiraha, threatens the stability Keiko has enjoyed for eighteen years. He enters her life when others have been giving her a hard time over her lack of boyfriend and low status employment. At a barbeque a friend’s husband takes issue with her marital status leading to offers to help fix this.

“It was the first time I’d ever met him, and here he was leaning forward and frowning at me as if questioning my very existence.”

Keiko reveals Shiraha’s existence to her sister and is shocked by the reaction.

“She’d never been this chatty with me before. Seeing how excited she was, it occurred to me that it wasn’t such a stretch to say that contemporary society was still stuck in the Stone Age after all. So the manual for life already existed. It was just that it was already ingrained in everyone’s heads, and there wasn’t any need to put it in writing. […] If it had been that simple all along, I thought, I wish she’d given me clear instructions before, then I wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to find out how to be normal.”

Even worse is the change in her co-workers’ when they believe Keiko is in a relationship.

“I’d thought the rest of the staff were made up of the same cells as me, but in the current strange atmosphere a village mentality was taking over and they were fast reverting to ordinary males and females. Now only the customers still allowed me to be just a convenience store worker.”

Shiraha is portrayed as a man to be avoided, yet to others he is still better than no man.

Told from Keiko’s point of view the style of the narrative suits the character’s literal, practical and unemotional outlook. There are wryly humorous interactions and observations as Keiko is taken to task over personal choices, despite them affecting no one but herself.

An indictment of societal expectations presented in an entertaining format. This is an enjoyable, concise if somewhat quirky read.

Convenience Store Woman is published by Granta.

My copy of this book was purchased at Foyles in Bristol. 

Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.