Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

What a gem! A one in a million book, written in a unique voice. A book that manages to be extremely funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

I got it from Bookshop.org so it also made me feel good to be supporting small bookshops. I heard about it a few years ago when it was published in English, but somehow never got round to buying it. And when I shop at Bookshop.org I try to go after exactly such books. After reading Snow I felt like I need a shorter book, something that won’t keep me in its world for too long. 

Oh, how I came to regret thinking that! Because when I came to Keiko’s world I wanted to stay there for a lot longer. Keiko since childhood seemed to be ill adjusted to society’s expectations. But wanting to please and live her life in peace she quickly learned to pretend to fit in. She tell us her story without a trace of emotion, because emotion for her is a useless thing. Keiko is rational in the extreme, which gives her this amazing deadpan voice. She observes society and people around her almost like scientific specimen, because she needs to learn to imitate their behavior, so they don’t figure out she is an impostor that deep inside does not fit in.

Keiko works in a convenience store. She has been fo the past nineteen years. What started in her teens has changed into a lifelong job. And the society cannot have that, especially that Keiko shows no willingness for be promoted or advance her life in any way. Her willingness to stay in one place and live a life of repeating pattern clashes with the society’s expectation of constant growth and change. There is a complete lack of understanding on both sides. Keiko cannot understand why people cannot just accept what she is doing, especially that it does no one any harm. Keiko’s family despairs that she does not have a family or a serious job and clearly does not want ot have them. It is just unacceptable. 

This mismatch of expectations and permanent misunderstanding results is absolutely hilarious observations. Keiko’s thoughts, descriptions and utter bafflement will have you roaring with laughter. But there is a deeper problem at the heart of this book. How much of our lives is pretending to fit in? How much of what we do is to fulfill someone else’s expectations? To what extent we are conditioned to want the things we want?

Keiko’s behavior and her choices question everything we think we should be doing. And she questions it without batting an eyelid. When we think we judge her she turns the mirror back at us and it is a bitter moment. 

I wish all books were so smart and funny. It was a pure joy to read. I swallowed it in one afternoon in the park and I still regret it was so short. Actually I may just reread it now.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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