Convenience Store Woman
Publisher: Granta Books
Publishing year: 2018
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Keiko is thirty-six years old. She’s never been into a relationship and she has been working at the same dead-end job in a convenience store for eighteen years. She’s happy with her life as it is, but her parents wish she’d just find a ‘real’ job. Her friends also keep pestering her about finding a boyfriend.
This short novel begins with Keiko explaining that she’s always been a strange child. Practical to a fault, as a child she came up with solutions to problems that weren’t exactly accepted by society (such as hitting another child with a shovel to break up fight). As she got older, Keiko realised that it was better to try and act normal. Her job at a convenience store makes this much easier: there is a manual that explains how to behave in different situations, which gives her something to hold on to. However, most people tend to move on towards either a ‘decent’ career or marriage (or both), but Keiko’s life remains in service to the convenience store. Eventually, she notices that, despite her efforts to appear normal, people begin to judge her for not moving on.
Convenience Store Woman is a short novel. The prose is straight to the point and easy to read, and the deadpan and practical way in which it is written makes the book a little quirky. In regards to its themes, however, there is a lot to unpack. Most notable is the theme of conforming to expectations. Japanese culture is quite strict (more so than my own Dutch culture, in any case) in terms of meeting these expectations. Though Keiko has a job to support herself, which should be enough, she still experiences pressure to find a ‘real’ job and a husband even though she’s not interested in doing either. This pressure influences her actions throughout the novel, even though, as a reader, you do get the sense that conforming to these wishes isn’t a good thing for Keiko herself. She obviously gets satisfaction through her work in the convenience store, and she’s good at it, yet there is still pressure to change. When she begins to mention her ‘relationship’ with some freeloading bum to others, people begin to treat her differently. Or rather, it becomes evident that her coworkers weren’t really treating her like a normal person before, yet this new treatment unsettles her.
Another interesting aspect relates to the novel’s portrayal of identity. Keiko has maintained her ‘normal’ appearance by copying the people around her to a certain extend. Considering people tend to behave differently when in different groups, the fluid sense of identity is quite remarkable to think about. Finally, there is the extend to which Keiko’s sense of self relates to her job, which becomes evident throughout the story in various ways.
Convenience Store Woman has some interesting food for thought, but considering it’s a rather short book, it doesn’t delve too deeply into these topics. The freeloading bum that Keiko hooks up with, Shiraha, got on my nerves as well. Though I realize that’s the point of his character, he got a little repetitive with his views on society. Keiko herself is also a rather passive character; practical and not emotional. Though I think it works for this kind of story, it does make the novel a bit quirky, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, if you’re looking for a short read narrating some relevant issues without becoming too heavy, Convenience Store Woman is definitely worth a shot.