Keiko has always been different. In grade school, she would get in trouble for reacting to situations in ways that were rational, to her mind. Why should she cry over a dead bird at the park like the other children did, when she felt nothing for the bird? Why did her mother look at her strangely when she suggested taking it home to eat, so they wouldn’t waste the meat? Early on, she learned her lack of emotion and empathy would get her into trouble in normal society. Her thesis: to get by in this world one must be as close to normal as possible, otherwise society will cast you out as something broken.
Keiko’s pursuit for normalcy brings her to a convenience store. The people who work at the convenience store are given a manual for how to act, how to greet customers, how to stock the shelves, how to dress and how to interact with others. Everything Keiko needs to know about how to appear normal she learns on the job at the convenience store.
Eighteen years pass at that very same store. New managers come and go, part-time employees come and go, but she alone is the unchanging steady rhythm. She dreams of the store when she’s away, dreams of greeting new customers and making rice balls for promotions and turning bottles on shelves just the right way to face the customer.
Keiko’s perception of normalcy (mimicking the tonal quality of the voices around her so that people are endeared to her) and the actions she takes to fit in (she visits her sister to meet her new baby, but can’t see what quality this baby possesses to make it any different from any other baby) are fascinating to read about. It gives me an appreciation for all of us who second guess the “right” way to feel and are dogged down by the ever-present pressures to conform.
You can easily devour this book in an afternoon, and it’s well worth the read. I understand why its been included on so many literary lists. Murata’s work is recognized by Japan’s most auspicious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. Check out Convenience Store Woman from your local library!