Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

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The Ginger Tree – Oswald Wynd (1977)

 

The Ginger Tree - Wynd

Poking around the older interwebs, I came across this title (The Ginger Tree) from another discussion with some fellow book readers, and remembering it was in the forgotten depths of my TBR shelves, I pulled it out. What a treat.

One. This is epistolary and you know I likes me some epistolary novel every now and then.
Two. It has a Feminist-Lite slant to it (despite of it being authored by a man – not that guys can’t relate to female characters, but this was really well done). I like some good Feminist reads.
Three. It was set in a time and country very different to where I am right now. (I wanted to armchair-travel a bit. Going back in time was a nice extra touch.)

This is the tale of Mary MacKenzie, a young Scottish lass who travels with her chaperone to the Far East and China to marry an only vaguely known fiancé who is working out there as a military attaché. Mary is young on many levels, just not with years, and so there is a lot of learning that goes on as the narrative progresses. Mary learns to discard the old manners and expectations of her bossy mother in Scotland, a freedom initially symbolized by Mary refusing to wear her corsets as her voyage takes her into hotter and hotter climes. Her freedom is also exponentially increased when her chaperone unexpectedly dies during the crossing, leaving Mary free to make her own friends. This was her first real taste of independence and she loved it.

So – this is a love story – girl meets boy type – but this has a big twist in it. Mary marries her fiancé but ends up having a relationship with a Japanese nobleman – a move which affects her for the rest of her (and his) life. Being so far from home can be exhilarating freeing at first, but when you are alone, divorced, and pregnant from a high class wealthy man who is already married, things start to get complicated.
It would have been very easy for Wynd to just write Mary as having an epiphany from her experience and turning it around into some other transformative experience, but he doesn’t take the obvious route. Mary is difficult as a person – she wants to fit in with the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but can’t seem to find a place to settle between her Western upbringing and her Far Eastern present, and so frequently is stuck in the Outsider position of both cultures.

The author, Oswald Wynd, had lived in China and Japan for many years, some as a POW in a camp in Malaya in WWII, and you can tell that he loves and respects the cultural differences whilst also acknowledging that these cultural differences can provide long-term barriers to both the Westerners and the Easterners.

This is a far-ranging book, time-wise, covering the beginning of the twentieth century through to WWII, as the world grows and changes so does Mary. Another reviewer pointed out that although The Ginger Tree presents itself as a Feminist-Lite narrative (and the protagonist recognizes the lack of gender equality in the different cultures), she still allows herself to get treated as a doormat. I suppose her lack of assertiveness, in this situation, was that she may have felt that she didn’t have many choices: she was divorced, with two children (one of whom had been taken away from her and one of whom was obviously of mixed parentage), she had had a romantic relationship with a nobleman, and she had no money, no job and nowhere to live. Going back to Scotland was not really an option when there is no communication with her family, and with no money, how would she get there? When one reviews her life in those terms, then it’s easier to empathize with why she did what she did. She’s not the most likeable character in the world, but she is humanly understandable.

PBS Masterpiece has the TV adaptation of this on-line – wonder how good that is…?