This quirky, witty novel by Japan­ese author Sayaka Murata isn’t hor­ror. In fact, it’s been com­pared to a love story of sorts between a woman and her con­ve­nience store. On the other hand, there’s an under­cur­rent of some­thing very dark, espe­cially those times when prot­go­nist Keiko Furukuru veers per­ilously close to chang­ing from a like­able kook to an out­right men­ace. As a child, she breaks up a school­yard fight by smash­ing one boy in the head with a spade. Upon find­ing a dead bird, rather than bury it as her mother sug­gests, she wants to grill it for her father.

9780802128256And as an adult, when her sis­ter wants the baby to stop cry­ing, Keiko matter-​of-​factly observes that a near-​by but­ter knife might get the job done. Just as trou­bling is the fact that Keiko’s alien­ation in the world is so pro­found she nav­i­gates soci­ety by mim­ic­k­ing oth­ers: their speech pat­terns, shop­ping styles, and the way they use their faces to express emo­tions she doesn’t feel.

In a way then, CON­VE­NIENCE STORE WOMAN exudes a kind of odd­ball, exis­ten­tial hor­ror, where Keiko feels proud that “I pulled off being a per­son” and aspires to be a “use­ful tool” inside the Hiiro­machi Sta­tion Smile Mart, a Japan­ese con­ve­nience store where she’s worked for eigh­teen years.

Into the Smile Mart comes Shi­raha, a boor­ish misog­y­nist “too good” for a con­ve­nience store job, but unable to get any­thing bet­ter. While tout­ing big ideas for mak­ing money, all he really wants to do is lounge in Furukuru’s tub, play­ing video games and whin­ing about how soci­ety has wronged him. This is pow­er­ful social comen­tary given the rise in Japan of the hikiko­mori, men who retreat (usu­ally) to their par­ents homes to escape the pres­sures to mate, pro­cre­ate, and find gain­ful employ­ment. Shi­raha sees Furukuru as the solu­tion to his prob­lems – if they live together pla­ton­i­cally, he explains, no one can crit­i­cize either of them and they will both fit in.

To sup­port her room­mate, Furukuru quits her job to look for some­thing bet­ter and finds, not sur­pris­ingly, that the con­veneince store is her true soul­mate. There is no bet­ter home for her than the Smile Mart, arrang­ing sodas in the cooler and rice balls on the shelves. When it comes down to a choice between Shi­raha and con­ve­nience store work, there’s no contest.

In spite of its dark under­cur­rents, I found CON­VE­NIENCE STORE WOMAN not just com­pelling but also strangely sooth­ing. Furukuru’s rela­tion­ship with the con­ve­nience store seems almost Zen-​like, with “chop wood” and “carry water” being replaced with “ring cash reg­is­ter” and “shout Irasshaimase!” to every­one who comes in the door.

P.S. I once taught Eng­lish in Tokyo and the Japan­ese con­ve­nience stores are a mar­vel, mak­ing Furukuru’s devo­tion not as bizarre as it might seem.

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