Convenience Store Woman is short and powerful, about a 36 y/o woman who has never quite fit in, and a risk she takes to try for a “normal” life.
From the blurb, I’d expected Keiko to be socially awkward, but I love that she actually had zero clue about social / emotional / moral convention, yet actually cared about fitting in. For example, as a child, while her classmates were crying over a dead bird, Keiko thought it would be good yakitori for her father. And later, when two boys in her class got into a fistfight, and her classmates were screaming for someone to stop them, Keiko knocked one unconscious. So there’s a cold logic to her actions (chickens are birds, and knocking the boy out did stop the fight), but Keiko honestly couldn’t comprehend why people are so horrified by her.
So she spends her childhood keeping as low a profile as possible to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, and then at 18, she finds a job at a convenience store and realizes she’s found the perfect fit. At the convenience store, there are rules that dictate how to behave and scripts that tell you what to say. At the convenience store, Keiko finally fits in, or at least knows how to fake being like everyone else.
But 18 years later, her part-time job is no longer enough for her family and friends, and her single status is earning her odd looks. So when she meets a single man looking for a wife, she thinks she’s found the perfect solution.
I loved this book so much. For all her unusual behaviour, Keiko is actually a very relatable, loveable character, and every time someone made her question her life choices, I just wanted to give her a hug. The guy she meets is a total asshole and deadbeat who is so not worthy of any woman — and I think many readers will agree pretty soon after he appears. I hated him so much. The way he spoke to Keiko (e.g. How lucky she is to have him because her womb is all shrivelled up and no one would want her) made my blood boil, and the way characters draw parallels between them (simply because they’re both single, in their 30s and somewhat odd) made me want to cry.
This book is a helluva punch, and it’s so beautifully written — tremendous emotion barely contained by the narrator’s detached language. It’s a wake up call to readers to question our relationship with social norms, and how we respond to people who don’t quite conform to expectations. Can one be happy without being “normal”?
The characters in this book ask Keiko some personal questions (even her co-workers) that may be easy to North American readers to dismiss as being culturally specific to Japan. (And certainly, some of her manager’s questions may get him fired in Canada.) But think about how people respond to adults who choose to remain single, or couples who choose to remain childless. This book will make you think hard about your assumptions about how happy such individuals are.
Convenience Store Woman is such an incredible book, and a fun read. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.