Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman #WITMonth

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Granta Books, 2019. First Japanese edition 2016

I’ve said here before that Mrs TD believes I read too many ‘morose’ books. I should read something more cheerful.

I emailed David McKay, the translator of Multatuli and J. Slauerhof, whose novels I posted on here recently, to tell him my posts had been published at T. Days. I said I was hoping to read another of his translations, War and Turpentine (by Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans), but was needing something ‘more cheerful’. He recommended this short novel by Sayaka Murata, ‘which has moments of dark humour and sinister overtones but is a very funny, charming character sketch on the whole,’ he wrote.

He was right.

Murata Convenience Store Woman cover Keiko Furukura is 36 and has worked in the same convenience store since it opened in a railway station mall eighteen years earlier. She seems to be on the autistic spectrum; we’re told of some disturbing incidents in her childhood where her tendency to fail to interpret people’s implied meanings, but to take their words horribly literally, gets her into trouble and causes her mother deep consternation.

She feels people don’t think she’s normal, so tries hard to imitate the intonations and conversational gambits of women around her, even the way they dress; that way she almost goes unnoticed.

Only at the convenience store does she feel at peace. She’s in tune with its sounds and rituals. She likes the predictable, unchanging routine. True, the staff and customers come and go, but the pulse of the store is reassuringly repetitive, predictable.

#WITMonth logoKeeping herself fit and alert enough to work there each day gives her life purpose; otherwise she’d be just an animal, and carnal urges slightly disgust her. At the store she can tune in to its mechanistic hum, merge and forget trying to be human.

When an equally strange young man joins the workforce and enters her life, she’s in danger of having to start behaving like a human, not a ‘foreign body’. The store reclaims her.

It’s not what I’d call a particularly cheerful novel. It does have a bizarrely humorous air: that deadpan narrative voice with its lack of affect, the narrator’s baffled fluster at the mysterious ways of humans, places her in the world of AI ‘characters’ in recent sci-fi fiction. She tries to interpret the world, but ultimately prefers the regularity of stock control and parroting the scripted greetings her team are drilled in every morning before they start work.

It’s a satire, I suppose, on the regimented world of Japanese corporate and commercial enterprise, and the strict requirements of a hierarchical culture – especially for women. Keiko is repeatedly reminded that she’s a freak largely because she conforms neither to the economic stereotype that makes other people comfortable: career progression, acquire more consumables (why drudge at a dead-end part-time job in a store, friends and family wonder), nor to the gender stereotype: get married, reproduce, spread her and genes.

She flirts with this last idea, repellent as she finds its animality, but is easily dissuaded from getting pregnant, in one of the funniest scenes in the novel.

Despite the dark humour I found I was most frequently reminded by this novel’s tone and effect of Kafka, and in particular of ‘Metamorphosis’. Keiko’s vague awareness that she’s not like everyone else around her causes her to want to transform and conform, but ultimately she’s only happy to be who she knows she really is – not ‘one of us’.

I enjoyed the book, and zoomed through it in a couple of hours. The translation is deftly done, and reads rapidly and smoothly. It was amusing and diverting to read, and not morose, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Any other suggestions for something cheerful? Not Angela Thirkell, please.





14 thoughts on “Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman #WITMonth

  1. I recall seeing lots of positive reports of this last year, especially across the blogosphere/Book Twitter. It sounds nicely done but possibly somewhat forgettable? I wonder how much one might remember about it six months down the line?

    As for suggestions of cheerful books, have you read Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April? It’s such a delightful story – positive and uplifting in the best possible way. Also, Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I very much doubt you could go wrong with either of those two. 🙂

    • Spot on, Jacqui: I doubt this will remain in my memory very vividly – but its quirkiness will linger. Thanks for the recommendations: yes, I read E April several years ago and thought it delightful – I have a couple more EVA titles so must give them a try. I seem to remember it reminded me in its premise – a person who transforms lives of others in a good way – of Mr Weston’s Good Wine, by TF Powys, which I read MANY years ago. I also have a copy of Miss Pettigrew, so another to tide me over a tricky time health wise. Meanwhile I’m halfway through vol. 1 of Uwe Johnson’s 1600-page Anniversaries – another not overly cheerful novel, but engrossing. It’s one that is experienced rather than read…

  2. Thank you for reading this so I don’t have to… Seconding von Arnim and definitely Miss Pettigrew – I adored the latter, it makes you grin all the way through. One of my favourite Persephones! Or how about a good Golden Age murder? They’re always reassuring!

  3. I don’t do cheerful :-), “darkly funny”, at best…But my husband read A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, recently, and apparently found it very uplifting. Karen wrote a very positive review of it, I seem to remember.

  4. #Snap I’ve been chatting elsewhere about how morose so many of the #WITMonth offerings seem to be, and so I am delighted to suggest Butterflies in November by Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon. I haven’t finished reading it yet so it’s possible it may descend into gloom, but so far it’s an upbeat and rather droll story about a thirty-something woman whose marriage has faded into irrelevance and she’s really quite relieved when he (and his laundry) departs. Not liking children, and not knowing anything about them, she gets landed with a four year old to look after and sets off on a road trip. The style reminds me a little bit of Nora Ephron (the book, not that woeful film).

  5. I just read and reviewed this and I’m not sure I “got” it as such – it didn’t seem all morose, though, as such. Although I’m in an odd place right now so I wouldn’t trust my judgements. I like the first cover you share more than mine, which is the name-tag one.

    I’d read some non-fiction for an uplift – e.g.

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