Convenience Store Woman

Image of Convenience Store Woman: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 12, 2018
Grove Press
Reviewed by: 

“The most mundane moments in Convenience Store Woman are possessed by a weird, marvelous momentum.”

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which won Japan’s Akutagawa Prize, is a novel about work—both the paid labor its female protagonist Keiko performs in her job at a convenience store chain in Tokyo, as well as the emotional labor she performs in her exhausting attempts to appear normal to friends and family. When Keiko was in her early twenties, nobody considered her life choices especially strange. “But subsequently everyone started hooking up with society,” Keiko says, “either through employment or marriage, and I was the only one who hadn’t done either.”

At the start of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko is 36, has never had a romantic relationship, and has labored in a non-career-track job at Haiiromachi Station Smile Mart for 18 years. Of course, “labored” might be the wrong word. Keiko feels both physically and spiritually linked to the convenience store. “Even when I’m far away, the convenience store and I are connected. In my mind’s eye I picture the brightly lit and bustling store, and I silently stroke my right hand, its nails neatly trimmed in order to better work the buttons on the cash register.”

The convenience store has proven key to helping Keiko learn how to conform—with some limitations. “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.”

It is often delightfully unsettling to watch Keiko strive to be a normal person when she is outside the confines of the store itself. With its understated prose and frequently deadpan narration, many moments of Convenience Store Woman are simultaneously sweet and darkly funny.

Yet Murata never makes Keiko the butt of the joke. Rather, Keiko’s strained attempts at normalcy cast a light on the true strangeness and coldness of those whom society deems “normal,” thanks largely to the novel’s direct and observant narration. “When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there,” Keiko notes. “I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.”

As a working-class woman who is content remaining unmarried and childless, Keiko is accustomed to being treated as less than human. Still, she is under increasing pressure from her sister and friends to either have a career or have children. She sees an opportunity to get them off her back when a new worker joins the convenience store staff. Shiraha, like Keiko, is out of step with societal norms. Unlike Keiko, he’s a misogynist, broke, and convinced he is owed more in life. After he is fired for harassing the store’s female patrons, Keiko strikes up an arrangement with him, allowing Shiraha to live in her apartment, rent free.

Assuming their relationship is a romantic and sexual one, Keiko’s friends and family are relieved. A happily celibate woman made no sense to them, but a woman in a troublesome relationship is a familiar story, normal. Keiko is glad her plot worked, but unnerved by how satisfied everyone else seems to be: “Listening to my friends go on about me and Shiraha was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.”

It feels like something of a gift to be able to move past the overconfident storytelling of Keiko’s friends, to instead get to know the Keiko full of the offbeat dimensions that these same friends won’t recognize but that Murata describes so precisely.

The repetitive cycles in Keiko’s convenience store routine are infused with a joyful exaltation that gives this slim novel a startling heft. The most mundane moments in Convenience Store Woman are possessed by a weird, marvelous momentum. Instead of wondering how Keiko will change over the course of the narrative, readers may end up hoping that, like her daily routine at the convenience store, Keiko, too, will stay the same.