Keiko is 36 years old. She’s never had a boyfriend, and she’s been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years.
Keiko’s family wishes she’d get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won’t get married.
But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she’s not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store…
I grabbed (metaphorically, I actually just hit ‘Order’ on Amazon, the joys of the internet) my copy of Convenience Store Woman after reading Liz’s wonderful review over on Cover to Cover. I trust my blogging friends when they say that a book’s good, so I knew that this would be a read that I’d enjoy.
Before I get into my thoughts on this book, I have to talk about how much this book made me miss Japan. I taught English in a suburb just outside the city of Yokohama between 2015 and 2016 and one of my absolute favourite things about Japan (aside from the heated toilet seats) was the convenience stores. In the winter, they sell little bottles of hot chai tea and I’d always grab one on my way to work, or if I wanted something quick but not overly cheap and nasty for lunch, I could just drop by a convenience store and buy a whole host of snacks and meals, from strawberry and cream sandwiches to tempura. One of my favourite convenience store foods were the rice balls – also known as onigiri – and I enjoyed these to the extent where I literally, not even kidding, have recurring dreams in which I’m wandering around a Japanese convenience store looking for rice balls. This book made me miss Japanese convenience stores so much!
Ahem. Anyway. Let’s get on with the review.
Convenience Store Woman follows Keiko, a 36 year old convenience store worker, who’s happily worked in the safe sanctuary of her convenience store for 18 years. She’s unmarried and child free. She’s never even had a boyfriend…but she’s happy and content with her life.
But that just won’t do for her family and friends. Her sister with her new baby. Her friends with their husbands and barbecue parties. They don’t care if she’s happy and content. They’re just desperate to cure her. They’re just desperate to make her normal.
But one of my first questions was what exactly do they want to cure her of?
From childhood, Keiko has had it drummed into her that she’s abnormal somehow. That her unique, often quirky way of viewing things is something negative. There’s a couple of flashbacks to when she was a child, one in which she finds a dead bird in the park. While the other children cry, she suggests to her mother that they take it home and make yakitori because it’s one of her father’s favourite dishes. Sure, maybe it’s an unusual (albeit practical) way of looking at the situation but it by no means that there’s something wrong with her. In another flashback, she’s, again, a child and she’s witnessing a fight between to other students in the playground. Other children are crying for someone to make them stop…so Keiko fetches a shovel from the school shed and hits one of the kids, making them stop. She doesn’t kill her fellow student, she just makes him stop, just as the other students wanted. Sure, perhaps it wasn’t the most advisable method of stopping the fight but she simply used her initiative. The impression I got was that Keiko simply had a quirky and insightful way of viewing the world and this further shown in her narrative.
These incidents and the negative reactions of others in the wake of them made Keiko feel as though simply being Keiko wasn’t good enough. Keiko explains to the reader how she began to imitate those around her, from the way they speak to the clothes that they wear, in an attempt to make people happy…in an attempt to fit their definition of normal.
The convenience store in which she works, though, is the once place where she doesn’t have to worry about meeting the expectations of others. Instead of being the person everybody wants her to be, she can just be a convenience store worker. Once the uniform is on, she’s no longer what people perceive to be ‘poor Keiko who needs curing’.
However, as the novella progresses, it becomes apparent that her life of comfort and contentment is under threat. Her sister and her friends begin to express ‘worry’ that she’s not yet married, her friends’ husbands express worry that she doesn’t have a ‘proper’ job, Shiraha expresses ‘worry’ that her job won’t fund their facade of being a newly-engaged couple (a facade that she agrees to adopt because she thinks it’ll make people happy).
Ultimately, all this ‘worry’ results in Keiko being pressured into leaving the store because she feels as thought she needs to live up to these people’s expectations of her. Her ‘friends’ and family expect her to conform and expect her to be ‘normal’. One line that demonstrates this is Keiko’s realisation – after her sister seems weirdly happy considering she believes that Shiraha has cheated on Keiko – that her sister’s ‘far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.’ (pg. 133)
For me, Convenience Store Woman is a social commentary. It’s a commentary about the hypocrisy of stifling somebody’s potential because they don’t fit the definition of ‘normal’ and then still criticising that person when they put their head down and simply try to get on with their life. Everybody talks about wanting to ‘cure’ Keiko, but the people who need a cure are those who are supposed to be closest to her. They cannot comprehend that Keiko is content with her life and their disbelief and interference is a poison to Keiko. Their attempts to ‘help’ her make her more miserable than being a single woman working in a convenience store ever did.
I’ve said too much already, but I will say one more thing: the ending will have you rooting for Keiko.
Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me
Buy your copy of Convenience Store Woman here or in your local bookstore.