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Convenience Store Woman

There’s just something about Japanese fiction that keeps me coming back. In what I’ve read so far – books by Hiromi Kawakami, Yuko Tsushima, and, of course, Murakami – there’s this deadpan quirk that runs throughout the prose, creating a strange, sometimes surreal, and often hilarious effect. South Korean author Han Kang does something similar in her novel The Vegetarian, however this beautiful book is more on the heart-wrenching than humorous side.

In Convenience Store Woman we meet Keiko, an odd thirty-six-year-old who has worked at the same convenience store for eighteen years. When she first lands the job as a teenager her family are delighted; they’d harbored doubts that their strange Keiko would land any kind of job at all. For years, the convenience store allowed Keiko to present as a functioning member of society. It was her haven.

As a convenience store worker Keiko excelled: she knew when the specials were on, how to process vouchers, when to change the lunch displays to reflect the weather and the customers’ desires. Even outside working hours, the store dictated when Keiko should eat and sleep: her wage covered the requirement for her body to be fit for work.

The store manual was Keiko’s manual for life. It told her what to say and what to do. But as Keiko approaches her late thirties her family begin to wonder why she’s never had another job, never expressed an interest in dating or marriage or children, and whether she will be working at that convenience store until she dies. Keiko suddenly finds herself scrutinised by family and friends and faced with a new set of unmet expectations. The convenience store world starts to slip from Keiko’s grasp.

This short novel packs a real punch. What could be a heavy story of an outsider is perfectly balanced by Murata’s amusing prose and observations. Convenience Store Woman will delight any reader interested in something a little off-beat that asks big questions about how we live our lives, and by whose rules.

Reviewed by Charlotte