For this month's Book Club, Jen Campbell reviews Sayaka Murata's tenth novel, Convenience Store Woman. Off-beat and at times unsettling it struck a chord in Japan, selling more than 600,000 copies. Now Ginny Tapley Takemori has translated it into English
I think we can all agree there's something comforting and fun about exploring supermarkets in other countries. I find Japanese supermarkets particularly fascinating: heart-shaped watermelons for £100, intricately decorated bento boxes, yoghurt-flavoured water, strawberry sandwiches the list goes on. You can find some of these products in their convenience stores, too. Japanese convenience stores, like their vending machines, can be found everywhere; simply peer down the street in any city and you're likely to spot three or four.
Exploring another country's supermarket aisles is a game of spot the difference, something that's celebrated and bemoaned in Sarah Moss's Names for the Sea, a book that documents her year of teaching in Reykjavik where, frustrated and homesick, she'd do anything for a block of French cheese. If we're in unfamiliar territory, a supermarket or a convenience store is a universal. With its harsh lighting, piles of packets and fresh produce, it is a place we can easily contextualise even if we can't find the Brie or read all the labels.
For Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata's tenth novel Convenience Store Woman, the convenience store is more than that: for her, it is society's core.
From a young age she has perplexed those around her, declaring they should cook a dead bird found in the park; breaking up a fight in the playground by hitting one of the assailants over the head with a spade; musing over the fact that it would be very easy to make her nephew stop crying by stabbing him with a cake knife. Those around her don't know about the last one because, by this point, she's learned to keep such thoughts to herself.
Whereas many of us may go to a corner shop for the passing convenience of picking up food, Keiko works at the convenience store because it is convenient to her existence and she has done so for the past eighteen years. She is content with this. She speaks about her role religiously, claiming that through this work she has been reborn' into society and become a cog in [its] machine.' She refers to herself and her colleagues asdisciples' who exist only in the service of the convenience store,' providing a double meaning of the word service'; they are both providing one and performing a church-like role. Keiko's bible is the convenience store handbook, which teaches her, as she puts it, how to be a normal person.'
My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager and the rest absorbed from past colleagues.'
To Keiko, society is one mass, ever-changing and blurred at the edges; all babies are like stray cats, and all people just like cattle. She feels as though she is a piece of its software, constantly being rewritten depending on who she interacts with, and she refers to this as being infected.' She records the way people talk as though studying animals and, when she first stumbled across the convenience store she now works in, she remembers thinking it looked like an aquarium.' With this simile and passersby peering in through its windows, the author shows us how stores are microcosms, camouflaged experiments in human behaviour, and Keiko is our scientist.
Sayaka Murata expertly explores how one can feel foreign' in one's own country even amongst our own species. She highlights the ridiculous aspects of modern-day life which force Keiko to conclude (once she has tried to conform to society's expectations of a thirty-something woman) that her family would prefer her to have lots of problems and be unhappy, rather than be content with a life they can't understand. And so, perplexed by the way the world works, Keiko buys up the dented cans and the near sell-by-date products at work and takes them home, less they be tossed out as damaged goods,' just like her.
Whilst this is Murata's tenth novel, it's the first of hers to be translated into English. As it's been causing quite a stir, here's hoping her previous books will be translated, too. There's something rather ironic about being unable to access her other works because they're in a language I can't read, when this novel focuses so brilliantly on what it means to feel like a foreign object,' unable to communicate with those around you. Perhaps I'll take up Japanese...
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. As a thank you, all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of Apple and Knife, the next book to be reviewed.