Contemporary Literature · Translations

Convenience Store Woman

A few months ago, this tiny book was everywhere and, while it really didn’t sound like anything particularly striking, people seemed to be really enjoying it. And, I am, as ever, a sucker for hype. Long story short, I added it to my TBR and, when it became available at my local library, I was genuinely excited to pick it up. (Side note, what is up with tiny books being pretty awesome right now – My Sister, the Serial Killer was also a wonderful literally little book. It’s an adorable trend I definitely am on board for.)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

(translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

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“It’s not a matter of what they will accept, it is what I am.”

Keiko Furukura has never really fit not, not with her family or in school or even now as a grown-up 36-year-old woman. When she turned 18, she began working at a local branch of a convenience store where, for the first time, the structure and predictability of every day brought her a measure of purpose and place. She understood her role and appreciated being able to follow the scripted responses for each social interaction. To this day, she still works there. However, having never been in love (or in a relationship at all), never moved “up” in her job, and without ambitions to start a family, she is still feeling incompatible with “normal” life outside of the store. So, she decides to take a desperate step to get her friends/family out of her business.

This story was just wonderfully quirky, a subtly profound celebration of the beauty in difference. The exploration of society, conforming to its standards, and the mental/emotional price paid by those who, either by choice or not, do not subscribe to that conformation, is weighty, despite the brevity of the presentation. Keiko mentions often her lack of understanding of the need for many modern “normalities” like marriage and childbirth, and reflects on why her family so often talks about “curing” her. It’s actually quite sad to read how little acceptance and closeness she feels to them, because she truly cannot understand their perspective, and they make no move to understand hers. To be honest, I sometimes couldn’t tell how literally to take this book. I wondered whether perhaps it wasn’t just an extreme satire on society’s expectations and Keiko was supposed to be a more humorous response to it. However, I am choosing to believe the opposite…that this was a quite literal critique. That Keiko’s perspective is one of a woman who falls, undiagnosed, somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. (Side note: kudos to all the mainstream books that are bringing light to this life experience/voice – The Kiss Quotient is another great recent example.) I believe that this short novel tells the underrepresented story of all those who process the world differently (perhaps, in a basic sense, just more literally), and thus are made to feel as if there is something wrong with them. And, in that case, I love how much it ends with a message of self-acceptance – that owning who you are and choosing to be, to flaunt, that person in the face of the close-minded majority, is such a satisfying feeling to be left with. The way Keiko upends her life, everything she has built to create a comfortable, predictable and safe routine for herself, for the small chance that a hairbrained scheme may make her mother/sister/friends “understand” her and take their prying noses out of her life, is actually quite heartbreaking. And that they are all more willing to accept and support her in an unhealthy, but recognizable situation, rather than her previously healthy, but less “reasonable” lifestyle is even sadder. I was worried, during this section of the novel, that Keiko’s differences in thought would cause her to lose herself/be taken advantage of in a way that would ruin her odd sweetness/sincerity and she would lose what sense of self she had managed to find, but I was wrong. I underestimated her and I’m so glad of that! Overall, the way that the author was able to so concisely and precisely convey such complex critiques and messages is remarkable.

This novel is just a weird little triumph of insight and social commentary, laced with some smooth, dark humor. I finished it feeling refreshed and, even though Keiko and I only have small things in common (not being interested in having children being, basically, the only one), quite seen. This gem is one of those books that…just speaks…volumes. Even though I spent such a short time with it. I will not soon forget Keiko and her striking and invigoratingly unique voice.


Enjoy a few quotes that I pulled from this little novel:

“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.”

“This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.”

“She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.”

“After all, I absorb the world around me, and that’s changing all the time. Just as all the water that was in my body last time we met has now been replaced with new water, the things that make up me have changed too.”

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