Rating 4 stars
I went to a Japan Foundation event at my local Waterstone’s bookshop last week to hear Sayaka Murata interviewed about her novella Convenience Store Woman. Another author, Yuya Sato, was also interviewed about his novel Dendera.
Both are prize-winning authors in Japan with many titles to their names. As ever, though, few have been translated into English.
I found the event strange but enjoyable. The interviewer seemed more comfortable talking about Sato’s novel and his approach to writing and asking Sato more probing questions than he did engaging with Murata. There was an awkwardness about his interactions with her. Fortunately, the audience seemed more interested in her writing and ideas, so the Q&A made up for the interviewer’s deficiency.
There was also an inbuilt awkwardness about the interview being conducted through a translator, with all its attendant pauses and whispers. The translator did an incredible job, making me realise that my own Japanese skills are far from adequate, never mind good.
I came away wanting to read both books, but more intrigued by the premise of Murata’s.
As luck would have it, when I started to tell my husband about the event when I got home, he revealed that he owns a copy of Convenience Store Woman and it hopped straight to the top of my list of what to read next.
It’s an unusual account of the life of Keiko, a woman in her 30s who is unmarried and has had the same job in a conbini for 20 years. Since childhood, she has struggled in social situations and in processing the world around her. She is very straightforward and applies her own logic to situations, not understanding the unwritten and unspoken rules of social engagement. Over time, she learns to mimic other people, so that she doesn’t draw attention to her difference. It struck me that she might have something like Asperger Syndrome, or occupy a similar place on the autism spectrum.
She finds her niche in the conbini, appreciating the regular pattern to the day, the set phrases she must speak. She is happy, but those closest to her aren’t. They want her to be happy in a more standard way, so that they can feel comfortable about her. Murata, perhaps unintentionally if her answers to the questions at the event are anything to go by, has observed something about Japanese society and its conformist nature in the reactions of Keiko’s family and friends.
Keiko is observant of the people around her, both her work colleagues and her former classmates from school with whom she has formed friendships in adulthood. She sees how people modify themselves and adapt to fit with those around them. She pays attention to the clothes they wear and the shops from which they buy them. At the book event, Murata kept referring to Keiko as being like an alien, and there is something in Convenience Store Woman that reminds me of the short story we read for A-level Japanese by Shinichi Hoshi. Murata referenced him as an early influence on her writing, too.
As she grows increasingly weary of her friends questioning her about her life choices, Keiko encounters a former colleague one evening and hatches a plan to get everyone off her back. Shiraha, the former colleague, has some odious opinions about women and society and how hard done by men are, but Keiko sees an opportunity for them both to benefit from her plan. Things don’t move along in the straightforward way she expects them to, however, and she finds her life under even more scrutiny than before.
By the end of the story, I found echoes of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, in the unhealthy cohabitation of Keiko and Shiraha.
It’s a funny book. There’s an element of farce to Keiko’s story, and a black humour about her view of the world. It’s a very pragmatic and somewhat bleak look at how people interact. And it has a fine moral in Keiko’s realisation that she can only be the person she is, and her own happiness is worth more than making others happy at great personal cost to herself.