Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori, and read by Nancy Wu

Quirky. Irresistible. Brilliant. Perfect. These are words that people on Goodreads who’ve reviewed Convenience Store Woman used to describe Sayaka Murata’s novella. I seriously could not disagree more. Instead of adjectives, I had questions: Is this satire? Is it a horror novella? Is it about domestic abuse? Is it a glimpse into Japan, whose population “birthrate has dropped to a historic level,” and society’s responding efforts to manipulate single people into reproducing for the good of the country? During one full hour while listening to the audio book, narrated by Nancy Wu, I felt sick to my stomach — and that is not hyperbole. But let me back up.

Convenience Store Woman is about Keiko Furukura, a woman who has worked part-time at a convenience store for eighteen years (she’s now 36). Her parents give her an allowance, so there is no need to work more. Constantly harassed by co-workers, friends, and family, Keiko wants to know why she can’t continue to be happy with her life, and why everyone demands she get a “proper” job, marry, and reproduce. Keiko has always been odd. During her girlhood, when she found a dead bird in the park, she was confused by everyone’s sadness — and then perplexed by their horror when she insisted they eat the dead bird. In order to fit in, Keiko adopts the facial expressions, fashion choices, and modes of speaking from those around her, making her seem a freakish conglomeration. I was appalled by the pressure to conform by those around Keiko, but it’s not unheard of in any country.

I admit I was drawn in at first. Keiko is rule-oriented, and I could relate: I, too, am a woman in her mid-30s with a part-time job and no children. I thrive on boundaries and knowing what is right and wrong. Keiko’s desire to match society and yet hide enough to get people to leave her alone was the most interesting theme in the novel. As far as the writing goes, I thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s descriptions of the convenience store: the customers, the specials, the sounds, the morning drill, the way Keiko predicts what will sell best based on various circumstances.

And then Shiraha, another mid-30s disappointment, is hired at the convenience store. Keiko is horrified that Shiraha is a slacker who claims he only took the job so he could find a wife. Shiraha threw the whole book into a dark place I could not abide. He’s fired for propositioning customers and deemed a pervert by his co-workers. Yet, he incessantly tells Keiko how worthless she is — that her uterus is old, that she’s a drag on society, yet women have it easier than men — and says things haven’t changed since “the stone age.” See, Shiraha has these theories about the hunter/gatherer days and how Japan continues to operate the same way, and he won’t shut up about them. Those long diatribes are repeated — not summarized –REPEATED. The novella would be about 75 pages shorter if the unnecessary repetition were edited out.

Shiraha is a psychopath. He is abusive, manipulative, barely verbal until in a situation that would hurt his ability to prey on Keiko; then, he’s well spoken and charming. As I was driving home from work, listening to Wu narrate, my stomach started to churn when Shiraha told Keiko it might help her that she’s a virgin, but she’s so old it doesn’t matter anyway. He told her that he could never “get it up” with her. That she would never fit in and become pregnant to satisfy her family because he would never “penetrate” her. Meanwhile, he demands food, makes Keiko lie to her co-workers, and physically drags her around by her arm at the end of the book.

In general, I felt like Convenience Store Woman sledge-hammered away on the message that Japanese people must fit into society, and that women are more burdened because they must create the next generations. A happy woman is not enough — she must serve her purpose for the greater good. Women should also reinforce societal rules by shaming friends, sisters, daughters, and co-workers into conformity. I started getting Only Ever Yours vibes, a book that upset me for ages.

I feel like I read a different book than the one everyone raved about on Goodreads. I feel like I was stuck in a domestic violence/thriller novel, one that had an odd-ball leading lady. Perhaps the translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is done poorly. Perhaps Nancy Wu’s choice to make Shiraha sound like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High affected the way I perceived him. In Wu’s hands, Shiraha is perpetually confused. “Whhuuuuut? Uuuuummmmm . . . . . . . . I guess.” Wu dragged out Shiraha’s vowels, giving him an idiotic tone to top off his abusive words. Regardless, his words are clear no matter how they are delivered.

42 comments

  1. I felt like this book was a quick satire and I thought the theme of normal was specifically geared to women. If you don’t do something else, marry or have kids and after all this time you still work at a convenience store, something must be wrong. Shiraru was guilty of the same assumption and was looking for a way to get others off his case. He’s not to smart but represented (to me) what he thought women do once they marry. He tried to control Keiko and he did nothing. And did you notice how people started treating her when she said he was living with her….Keiko noticed it too. Glad she got away from him in the end….I hope

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    • Satire typically has some type of humor, though — biting or witty. I didn’t see anything biting or witty when Shiraha told Keiko that her uterus was too old and that she was a useless human being. Like I said, I wonder if the translation or voice actor got it wrong somehow, and the satiric tone was lost.

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    • Do you not feel that the message from Shiraha is that women who are past an societal “married by” date are useless, pointless, and should serve to make life easier for men as an acceptable alternative?

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      • Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean Murata agrees, or that it’s the point of the book. Shiraha was deliberately unlikable, and to me, he served as a means to highlight and critique outdated, misogynistic views on women and their bodies, not to condone them.

        As I interpreted it, Murata was ultimately saying that not everyone’s idea of happiness is the same, and that many women don’t need to go down the traditional route of marriage and children (or a highflying career, for that matter) to feel valued or fulfilled.

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          • Indeed! It could certainly be argued that he, alongside Keiko, showed how damaging societal pressures can be, given how warped his own goals and perception had become. He felt largely like a manifestation of everything Keiko feared: leaving the store, getting married to appease others, and having children she didn’t particularly want.

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            • Ah, I see what you’re saying but counter that Shiraha doesn’t want to get married (because he could never “get it up” wit Keiko) or have children. Was he even a nightmare that Keiko could predict? I figured she was more worried about getting stuck with some boring dentist-type and birthing his children for the rest of her life.

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            • yes! There is even one part in the book where she said she’s adopted Shiraha – and that made me laugh. She seemed to view the arrangement of them living together as a business transaction, something convenient. In that, people would leave them alone.

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              • Okay! I do remember that part but have buried it in my head. I remember wondering what the book would have been like if she’d kept treating him like a pet and he slowly became like an animal (well, more so than the leech in the bathtub he became — like, what if he actually started drinking water out of a dish on the floor?).

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        • Those are all good points. I wonder, then, why the author didn’t chose to have someone who was kind to Keiko, or at least not a complete narcissist, which might better highlight that while Keiko is attached to someone, she appears a better citizen. Or, I wonder how this book would be different if it were actually funny or a deliberate thriller/horror novel. I would have read it very differently. Instead, the framework of “witty” and “quirky” threw me for a loop, as if readers think that verbal and psychological abuse is “witty.”

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          • I imagine the author saw him as a manifestation of everything Keiko feared, and everything she wanted to critique about society, hence why his worldview and behaviour were so toxic and extreme. Making him likeable could have undermined and diluted her point.

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    • Except for the part where Keiko starts to think of Shiraha as a pet (which is not long lived), I would argue that it’s not satire. What have other reviewers said that made you feel iffy? So far, I’ve only read mostly positive reviews and feel quite alone!

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  2. I’ve read a few reviews of Convenience Store Woman and was tempted by the quirky etc descriptions. But your review highlights one of the disadvantages of audiobooks and that is when there is a diatribe you, the reader are being shouted at, and I dislike that intensely. (The other disadvantage is lists. Reading, you can say to yourself ‘yes, that is a list’ but listening you must listen to every damn word.)

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    • The book felt “quirky” to me in the way alt-lit in the U.S. is supposed to be “quirky.” Here, alt-lit is made up of “sensitive” men who are constantly gloomy, claiming “nice guys finish last” and write books with male leads, typically characters who walk around and are pensive, but their concerns seem rather shallow, to be honest. This group of writers is also know for sexually abusing minors, which is….not exactly the reputation you want for your writing movement/genre. Quirky, indeed.

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  3. This is so interesting! I’ve read mostly positive reviews for this book, and I always like seeing the other side. I think I’ll keep it on my TBR for now since it’s so short anyway, but I’ll definitely go into much more cautiously having read your thoughts.

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  4. I think this is the third review of this book I’ve read and it seems like every reader has an entirely different perspective on it. None of them have quite convinced me this is a book for me and you have certainly swayed me from wanting to read it! (Apparently in Japan, unmarried women are referred to as “Christmas cake”. Ie: No good after 25 so there’s definitely a real life culture behind this. Not that we’re so much better in North America.)

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    • I taught a short section about Japanese writing when I was still a professor, and part of my lesson was about the culture of modesty (if that’s the right word). Apparently, in Japanese dating profiles it’s common for users to take a picture of themselves that doesn’t show their faces. So, no one knows what the person they’re going on a date actually looks like. Many writers in Japan are anonymous, too, instead going by usernames, even at writing award ceremonies.

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      • There is so much I don’t know about Japanese culture! I think in a lot of South Asian cultures (I’m thinking of China in particular) there is much more emphasis on the group rather than the individual so this makes sense.

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  5. This sounds like such an uncomfortable book to read (as many books with thought-provoking themes are!). It’s interesting how your reaction to it was so different from the others who commented on Goodreads. I often find that I’m the *only person* who loves/hates a book!

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    • I’ve been hearing about it for a few months, it seems. I would hear about it, think “that sounds interesting!” and then not add it. Finally, another book review read it, which reminded me of the title, and I got a copy.

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  6. I appreciated this book – it was disturbing but I felt that the message was about drawing attention to society’s attitude towards unmarried women, rather than condoning it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the book a lot, but I’ve kept it on my shelf for a re-read.

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    • I feel like I got the same message from everyone around Keiko, and I appreciated what it was saying, especially since I know Japan’s population is rapidly decreasing, thus the emphasis on creating a family is important. However, I felt like the scale tipped when she invited Shiraha into her home and he verbally abused her so much. I didn’t feel like he alone represented all of society, which is what I think some readers feel. Thank you for commenting! I’m glad people are discussing this book with me.

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  7. Wow, this sounds really bad. I’m glad that I read your review, as this was a title I’ve heard good things about, but I will stay clear of it now! Anything that gives off Only Ever Yours vibes is something to stay away from.

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  8. This was on me potential list because of the quirky character with no ambitions vibes. I get told that I am that a lot. But I am glad ye highlighted the negative male aspects because I am now certainly not going to read this book. It reminds me in a way of the problems I had with Eleanor Oliphant (who I liked) because she didn’t “get better” in some ways until she conformed to society’s expectations. I don’t conform and have lots of problems because of it. I am not trying to be contrary. I just don’t care about many things deemed important by others. Like having kids. Ugh. Lovely review as always. Thanks matey!
    x The Captain

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    • Convenience Store Woman is often compared to Eleanor Oliphant, but I haven’t heard anything concerning that would keep me from reading Eleanor. I recently read a review of a book called The Room by Jonas Karlsson that sounds more like what I wanted to read about in Convenience Store Woman — someone who is happy with doing things her way despite societal pressure.

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  9. A very interesting review and comments – I’m glad I saved it for when I’d read the book. My review is here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2019/08/24/book-review-sayaka-murata-convenience-store-woman/ and I feel like I’d missed something in a way and that it was a satire on Japan’s place in the world or something. I did find it more disturbing than I put in the review, although felt Shiraha was put there to intrude those things everyone was saying right into her life, but she got her revenge in the end by choosing her own path.

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    • Satire often heightens something to the ridiculous in order to make fun of it. However, Shiraha isn’t that different from young white men in America. There are entire websites with thousands of followers devoted to hating women and spreading the word that feminism is a cancer that will destroy the fabric of society.

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