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Convenience Store Woman
(Konbini Ningen) by Sayaka Murata,
translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Granta Books, 2019 (2016).

Quirky. Hilarious. Weird. Funny. Comical. Cute. Dreamy. Just some of the adjectives from press reviews littering the cover of the edition I read of Sayaka Murata’s Konbini Ningen. Yet, strangely, these wouldn’t have been the words I’d’ve used, which perhaps only goes to show that I’m an atypical reader.

Sad. Affirmative. Blistering. Honest. Critical. Familiar. Unconventional. These are the terms that come to my mind after having completed this first-person novella of a woman in her thirties who works part-time in a Japanese convenience store. Not a trace of dreaminess, quirkiness or real comedy did I detect. It really matters who’s in the audience for this little drama.

For the fact of the matter is that Keiko Furukura doesn’t fit the norm of a woman approaching middle age in Japanese society; and her attempts to fit in as best she can lead to rather mixed results. Can she – or rather should she – be “fixed” or “cured” of her thinking and behaviours? That’s the crux of this thought-provoking piece of what one might class as autobiografiction.

Shinagawa, Tokyo (photo: Seiya Ishibashi)

For the last eighteen years, since the age of 18 in fact, Keiko has been working part-time at a convenience store near Hiiromachi Station in Shinagawa, Tokyo. She likes the familiar sounds, the routine, the well-defined rules around promotions, the rituals around greeting and interacting with customers. Other staff may come and go but she is a steadfast rock in what is at times a turbulent environment.

But troubles assail her, even though she tries to appear “normal” by working well at her job and by masking her nature through taking on the speech and behavioural tics of her colleagues. It is her nature that flummoxes her family and acquaintances: her apparent lack of emotion in certain circumstances, her frank statements that bypass accepted habits of dissembling, above all her lack of interest in sex, getting married and settling into the role of housewife. After all, she is in her late thirties, only in a part-time job, and not fulfilling societal expectations…

And not only are they flummoxed: they actively try to interfere, especially her family who feel they have made allowances for her eccentricities for all her life and who think she should now learn to conform. Their opportunity comes when she gives space in her crowded flat to an ex-employee at the store who proved temperamentally unable to fulfil his duties: he may be a means to render the convenience store worker less of an inconvenience for their norms of what is acceptable.

I found Convenience Store Woman an unusual and yet very familiar portrait of a woman on the autistic spectrum, all the more so for Keiko’s condition never being identified as such, if indeed it was ever intended to be depicted thus by the author. Sayaka  Murata has clearly drawn on her own life as a part-time convenience store worker, a job that has allowed her – and continues to allow her – to pursue a career as a successful writer. It would be an ideal arrangement for some on the spectrum who wanted a steady income from a not too demanding occupation while having a creative outlet.

But still, this novella wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t an absorbing story, and for me this certainly was engaging, partly due to Ginny Tapley Takemori’s unintrusive translation. As a protagonist recounting her own experiences Keiko is blessed with a distinct personality, one which successfully draws the reader into her own world and ways of thinking. And author Sayaka Murata’s voice is certainly one which I would like to encounter again.

Sayaka Murata (photo: New York Times)


A novella in translation read for Novellas in November #NovNov

21 thoughts on “Inconvenient

  1. How interesting that you responded to this so differently to other reviewers I’ve read – but, I think, understandable in that we all read books in our own way. I’ve found that I my feelings about particular books are very unlike others, and hearing what you have to say about this one I think I would tend towards your description as opposed to the somewhat lighter ones!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen, I appreciate what you say! Though I’m only self-diagnosed my partner is not only diagnosed as on the spectrum but as a psychologist she also writes, lectures and talks about the condition, and especially about women on the spectrum. The upshot is that although each autistic person is different, many share aspects from a basket of symptoms, and I can tell that the character Keiko has many of those diagnostic symptoms for someone on the spectrum, though I’m no specialist, I hasten to add!

      It’s hard without going into mini-lecture mode, but the fact is that Keiko’s circle of acquaintances seeing her as not normal can well be seen as hurtful or disparaging of who she is, and I don’t regard that as either funny, humorous or even cute, more a matter of a lack of comprehension or sympathy.

      And, interestingly, autism is not a condition to be swept under the carpet – those originally seen as exceptional, comprising only 1% of the population first grew to 1.8%, and now, with a basket of associated conditions also considered – dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and others – effectively make up an estimated and not insignificant 5% of the population.

      Mini lecture over… You can see why I felt strongly about this, and why I think this work should be viewed from a different perspective!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I also fail to see what is hilarious about this book.. The suggestion of autism isn’t something I had detected – I don’t have sufficient knowledge to make that connection. I read it as an indictment of the pressure placed on women in particular to conform in Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Autism isn’t of course mentioned at all – and from watching the South Korean series Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netflix I understand that being diagnosed as on the spectrum in certain Pacific Asian countries is regarded as a stigma – so it’s unsurprising that, other than the opening childhood sequence where Keiko’s thoughts and actions could be characterised as ‘quirky’, it’s never alluded to.
      But that it’s largely about the pressure to conform with social behaviour which is culturally acceptable I absolutely agree, Karen, and for men (like Shiraha) as well as women.


      1. A book that I’ve been meaning to get to, but haven’t been able to so far. The book seems to capture the pressures and frustrations that someone in Keiko’s position would face from society very sympathetically. From the sound of it, the adjectives that you use seem far more apt.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: It’s Novellas in November time – add your links here! #NovNov22

  4. Thanks for highlighting this Chris, I’m intrigued! Are the words ‘littering the cover’ (such a good expression) from the English translation or the original I wonder, do you think there’s some racial stereotyping going on in the readers’ mind?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as I can see they’re all English-language sources, Jane, so it’ll be the translation they’re referring to. As for whether the critics are stereotyping I can’t tell, but I think it’s mostly because they mightn’t understand where the protagonist was coming from. Definitely worth a read though!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! I totally agree with your reading of the book, not cute or funny but devastating at times, however someone one can understand and root for. I’ve checked back on my review and I was a bit flummoxed as to whether to read the central relationship as funny or depressing: I have the feeling I was led astray by people thinking it was cute, so I’m glad of your assessment of it. My review here if you’re interested. It’s certainly stuck with me; unfortunately, I’ve really not fancied her next offering!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Liz, and having now read your review I see how those quotes were liable to lead the innocent reader astray and thus do the author and story a disservice.

      As for Keiko and Shiraha’s relationship, I understood how as a pair who never fitted in with expectations they might have gravitated towards each other, but it was a poisonous relationship and deserved to go the way it did, I think.

      Sorry to hear her next offering might be a disappointment! I might still seek it out as someone in our bookshop said she enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I heard the author (through a translator) speak about this novel. I blogged about it at the time, after I’d read the book At the book event, the author likened her main character to an alien.

    I’m not an expert, either, but I agree that the main character is on the spectrum. At the time I read it, I used the term Asperger’s which I’m aware is no longer in use when diagnosing, but some who received this as a diagnosis in the past still choose to identify with it.

    The writer Naoise Doylan, who also identifies as autistic, wrote about how she felt recognised by Murata’s novel

    I did find a very dark humour in the book, which I relished.

    I haven’t read Earthlings yet. It’s on my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Earthlings is on my wishlist too, Jan! Especially now with regard to Keiko being likened to an alien. Thanks for drawing attention to your review – I’ve left a comment there. I’ll read Naoise Doylan’s piece next.

      You’re right about Asperger syndrome being a term out of favour as a diagnostic tool, along with terms like ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning’ too, thank goodness. However, some in the spectrum are still happy to call themselves an Aspie or an Autie, though ‘autist’ seems to be often used now as a denigratory label. A plague on labels! They just try to place the infinite variety of personality into convenient boxes, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, labels can be as much a burden as a help, can’t they? I try to follow the lead of the person, because too often labels are applied rather than chosen. We do like to pigeonhole people, don’t we? A plague on norms!

        Liked by 1 person

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