Saturday 11 December 2021

Everyone thought I was rather a strange child

Convenience Store Woman Convenience Store Woman is about Miss Furukura. "Everyone thought I was a rather strange child", she says, and it was only when she started working at a convenience store and was trained to deal with customers that she was able "to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." Now in her mid-30s, unmarried with no boyfriend, she's worked part-time in the same store for the past 18 years or so. Following her sister's advice on how to appear "normal", she's happy.

The edition that I read included an essay by author Sayaka Murata entitled A Love Letter to the Convenience Store, and the tale is indeed a sort of romance between Furukura and the store. In the opening pages the character describes in fascinating detail how the sounds of the convenience store enable her to anticipate customer needs. She makes odd comments that set you wondering what, if anything, has happened to make her the way she is.

Although Furukura is content, there's a sadness to her situation. She realises that her sister is "happier rather thinking [Furukura] is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine". When Shiraha, a young man who rejects the expectations of society, joins the team, Furukura's ordered life is thrown into disarray. However, what is chaos for Furukura is conformity for her co-workers, and their interaction with her changes. Unfortunately "it felt like [they'd] downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species".

In addition to this idea of societal norms, the book raises questions about sexlessness and celibacy, which brings into question the translation of its title. In Japanese it is Convenience Store Person, but in English it has become Convenience Store Woman. I wonder why this decision was made, because it doesn't really tally with those themes.

Furukura reminded me of Aroon St Charles in Good Behaviour, or Eleanor Oliphant in Gail Honeyman's book. They are women who function within society and accept its mores but either can't or won't conform. Some might describe them as nerds or geeks, characters who take people at their word and don't understand sarcasm or "banter".

Furukura has found her place in society, or rather a small space where she fits without having to compromise. As she says, "I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world", and this makes her happy, whatever other people think of her.

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