Once in a while a work in translation is published that everybody reads and raves about. You see it on all the year lists and recommendations everywhere from news sites to dedicated bookstagram accounts. Convenience Store Woman has been that kind of book, since it’s release earlier in the year it has gained such popularity I have been seeing it at least once every week for a good few months. Sayaka Murata’s novel follows a woman in her mid-thirties who works in a convenience store. In Japan, these can be found everywhere – they stay on 24-hours a day and are there to provide service for whoever crosses their path; the working staff within consists mostly of students, jobb-hoppers, housewives and immigrants (as the narrator herself points out). She is the anomaly in the store, having worked in this same place for 18 years. The job being considered as a part-time job, and at most a temporary sort of situation, everyone in her surroundings finds it strange that she has been in this same place for so long. As an excuse to get beyond people’s ‘concern’ or criticism, she says that she is physically unwell and can only do this much work. In reality, she is happy working there and finds meaning in her life through the simple but repeated motions of the store.
Of course, there wouldn’t be a story unless something happened to shake up her life. A new worker, Shiraha – a skinny man with little to no interest in doing a good job, comes to challenge some of the routines and carefully constructed patterns that Furukura has established for herself and for her surroundings. While part of the book directly relates to this man and his relationship with Furukura in and outside of the store, mostly this book deals with Furukura’s wish to live in her own way, and everyone else’s demands for her to live another way. I’ve heard many people point to this book’s examination of (Japanese) society and its pressures to conform, to be a certain way to fit the mold of what is normal and what is not. To follow the herd, to make it easier for others to place you into categories or to understand you, above you yourself living a fulfilling life.
In many ways, this book seems typically Japanese. The whole store structure in physicality and mentality is of course Japanese, but there’s also this idea of the individual sacrifices for the common good, that is so prevalent in this kind of society. The idea that the contribution you can give to society adds more value to you as a person than anything you can judge yourself by. But in other ways, it has a feeling of universality to it. Who has not thought about one’s own life and measured it to other people’s expectations, at least once? Even if those expectations are not always spoken, in fact even if they’re imagined. The fear of not doing what ‘everyone else is doing’, to cultivate a new path – it can be scary, and not a very natural thing either. It requires a kind of strength; a strength that can be seen in Furukura in the end.
Convenience Store Woman is a short book that could easily be gulped in one go, not just for its size but for its compelling narrator and her unique way of looking at the world and herself in it. But it is also a book that probably will have you thinking back on it for a good while, whenever you end up in such a situation where you could take the trodden path or break away from it.
About this Book
Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Originally Published: 2016
Published in the English Transl.: 2018
Publisher: Grove Press