On a first reading it is tempting to think that Sayaka Murata’s protagonist is someone most of us can relate to. Keiko Furukura wishes nothing more than to live a quiet life in her own way, without having to explain her choices to people every time she finds herself at a social gathering. But as the novel progresses, Murata builds Keiko’s character in a manner that creates a deliberate distance between her and the reader – Keiko’s singular focus on a mundane job, her bizarre choice of a relationship, and her stubbornly objective and stoical observations make her seem both superhuman and less than human at once.

After all, how many of us can remain completely untouched by ambition or societal contempt? Murata’s ability to first hook the reader and then take them on this roller-coaster of character exploration is charged by a wry sense of humour and insightful conclusions about human nature, making Convenience Store Woman a breezy read despite its many surprises. Using the most mundane of settings, a cramped convenience store, Murata succeeds in asking us to question the very meaning of a normal life.

Upwardly immobile

The novel opens in the crowded and busy setting of Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, where we meet the thirty-six-year old Keiko, who is engrossed in the day-to-day business of the store. As she gives us a quick rundown of her work and surroundings, she tells us that she loves donning the store uniform, working part-time shifts to earn enough to be able to afford a small apartment. She has worked here for eighteen long years without any aspiration for change in her career or even a vacation.

This is our first clue to the bewitching oddness of Keiko Furukura. In today’s fast-moving gig economy where job-hopping and experience-gathering are the norm, our heroine’s self-contented acceptance of routine and physically demanding work hooks us into a life that is unacceptably mundane even for her friends and family.

In Keiko’s world hypocrisy is a necessary ingredient to keep society’s niggling interference at bay. What is personal, what is private, what is for oneself, is separated from what must be presented to the outside world. There is no cognitive dissonance here, only acceptance of the fact that a show of normality is sometimes the easiest way to maintain peace at the personal level while maintaining social ties. To this end, she religiously goes to work every day, takes tips from her sister on how she should answer questions about her life at parties and get-togethers, and, in a major twist later in the novel, tries to take this aspiration to whole new level by constructing a fake life for herself.

On the receiving end

What’s charming about Keiko is that she doesn’t grudge anyone their contemptuous remarks and demeaning questions, nor does she take refuge in solitude. While her family and friends constantly judge her for being single, childless, and unambitious, she relates to us their reactions with a detachment that betrays no bitterness. Acutely aware of the fact we are all affected by our social setting and people we interact with, she observes how her own behaviour is a product of her co-workers’ mannerisms:

“My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs Izumi and Sugawara...Infecting each other like this how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.”

We see the barrage of judgements she encounters every day: get a job, they say; get married, they say; don’t you think you are a loser? they ask. Certain that she needs rescuing, they seem incapable of believing that she lives a satisfied, independent life despite the lack of sex, romance, and upward economic mobility. Thrown in this situation is a sluggard, Shiraha, who joins work at the store in a bid to find a suitable bride for himself. His main whinge is that “Nothing has changed since Stone Age” and “Life is much more difficult for men than women.” While other workers can barely tolerate Shiraha’s presence, each interaction with Keiko begets funny retorts and Socratic questioning from her. During one of their initial conversations, when Shiraha makes a snide remark about another employee, Keiko notes:

“When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so, I always think: that’s what a human is.”

A delicious twist

This universal empathy with the human condition is her secret weapon and her intriguing charm. Keiko feels no emotional burden in empathising with misogynists and sexists, constantly asking them questions to understand their opinions. Sometimes she manages to combust their arguments right in the middle of a conversation. At other times her witty thoughts are shared only with the reader.

In doing this, Murata craftily holds a mirror to our own biases and expectations. Halfway through the novel, there is a delicious twist that would take most readers by surprise. As the twist unravels, we see Keiko struggling to maintain a unity between her public persona and her inner truth. Convenience becomes a major theme and the writer shows us how far a woman will go in order to appear normal to the world.

Murata persists in holding on to the question: Is it even possible to make a convenient arrangement that would make both an oddball and the people around her happy? As we near the end of the novel, a sense of personal apocalypse hovers over it. We are not sure which version of Keiko will survive: her personal authentic self or her normalised persona. After a brief meeting with her sister at a point when Keiko seems to be heading towards fulfilling her family’s expectations, her thoughts turn to her sister’s behaviour:

“She is far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible.”

What does it mean to be an oddball at heart? Can an oddball succeed in trying to be normal? What is normal? What price must a misfit pay to fit into her social milieu? How conscious are we in playing the roles of an employee, a parent, a sibling, a friend? These questions are brilliantly explored in the novel. Until recently, Murata herself worked at a convenience store to support her writing and this first-hand experience lends a striking emotional honesty to the book.

Murata is a much-awarded writer, having debuted with a short story, Junyū (Breast-Feeding), which won a merit award in the Gunzō New Writers’ Prize competition. Two of her other works, Gin iro no uta (Silver Song) and Shiro-iro no machi no, sono hone no taion no (Of Bones, of Body Heat, of Whitening City) have won prestigious awards in Japan. Convenience Store Woman is her tenth book and the first to be translated to English. Already a huge hit in Japan, it won the Akutagawa Prize in 2016. Readers familiar with the works of Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, and Meiko Kawakami will delight in reading this translation by the British translator Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Granta Books.