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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Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)

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(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?

Jessica_Anderson_(Australian_author)

Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Happenstance – Carol Shields (1980)

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Another reread (and another gamble — totally not like me at all to reread titles but there you go. Life is not for sissies.) So, this was a reread kept in the TBR pile because obvs I enjoyed it the first time around. However, this time around, it’s not quite that same level of excellence (and I’m being pretty generous here in how I describe that). It was published in 1980, which means, probably, that it was written during the 1970’s and goodness me, how the time seems to have been a dreadful decade for writing novels. I don’t know what was going then that novel writing seems to have been so impacted by Free Love and all that hippy stuff during the previous two decades but when it’s viewed through the perspective of the 21st century eyes, it’s makes me cringe rather.

So this novel is very very dated in things which made it rather a challenge to pick up and enjoy. (Again, we’re back to the “why didn’t I put it down and just move on to another title” question but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.)

The novel’s structure is divided into two to reflect the two views of the two people involved in the marriage which is at the heart of the story. The husband and wife are two fairly ordinary middle class people living in Canada during the 1970’s and the book is written so that there is no wrong way to start the text. Either way (whether you start with the husband’s or the wife’s perspective) will worked in this case.

The couple involved are very “normal” – no weird sex proclivities (which seems to be a common theme in this era’s novels) but they have different views of the same events that have happened to both of them. It reminded me of a rather unsuccessful homage to the books “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge”  except set in the hackneyed 1970’s era. Perhaps I have become more immune to things (or the world in general has) but this whole storyline of sexual permissiveness and experimentation, of “open” marriages and free-range parenting seems rather hackneyed now. Perhaps it was really edgy and fresh when it was published 30 years ago….

So – this was a very meh book for me and one that I will happily donate to FoL for their book sale and to the next reader. (Another point to consider is that this may have suffered following the excellent read of “Brooklyn”…) I know now that I am officially done with Carol Shields’ work. (See review of “A Celibate Season” here.) Sigh. Oh, to have that time back
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Moving on, what’s up next? That, my fellow reading friends, is what we have to find out…

The Odds – Stewart O’Nan (2012)

Having really enjoyed some of Stewart O’Nan’s other works (Last Night at the Lobster Café and Emily, Alone), I rather knew what to expect from him: present day situations with lots of focus on relationships. (In fact, this rather reminded me of Tropper’s book, “This is Where I leave You”, which I reviewed earlier.) However, each of these books  stand well as individual reads.

This one differed in that instead of focusing on the death of a family member, it was more focused on a couple  (mostly the husband in this case) who are trying to resuscitate their marriage by taking a Valentine’s Day package trip to Niagra Falls. This trip, which offers $50 in gambling money and is upgraded with the honeymoon suite at the hotel, is rather fraught with anxiety for both Art, the husband, and Marion, the wife; each desperately wants to please the other one, but for different reasons. Marion cannot forget an ill-planned affair that her husband had twenty years ago, and nor can she forget a short love affair she herself had with another woman. Art, on other hand, is wracked with guilt over his behavior (although it was ages ago), and both are now jobless, with their home in foreclosure.

Art looks at this trip to Niagra Falls as the be-all and end-all of their marriage and life together. If they can only re-ignite their love for each other (and also double their winnings at the roulette table), then perhaps all their problems will be solved.

This is an uncomfortable but extremely honest look at long-term relationships (like a marriage). It clearly shows the rifts that can grow when problems are not addressed, and both of them are somewhat ambivalent about their impending divorce, but for different reasons. Art really wants to save his marriage out of love for Marion; Marion has her foot halfway out the door, but is not sure that she is ready to go the full way just yet. And it is this push-and-pull tension that sucks you into the book and keeps you reading until the end.

O’Nan does a very good job (as usual) of getting to the heart of relationships in a realistic way. It’s perfectly true that your affection for your partner in a long-term relationship will wax and wane, and there are times when you may be out of sync with each other.  It also demonstrates how a long-term couple know each other well enough to closely work as team partners on an agreed goal (in this case, the strategy for winning at roulette) even if perhaps they are unsure of their individual end goals.

Another strength that O’Nan has is that he does a great job of describing the slightly yucky and rather expensive holiday package that the couple have bought: the tourist schlock that they are surrounded with, and the effort required to “enjoy” all the attractions on a cold, windy and wet weekend when unspoken pressures are the order of the day.

This sounds like a rather depressing read, but it’s not for the most part: it’s a realistic look at two people who have loved most of their lives together and yet still are separated by a gulf. There is also, clearly, a metaphor for life and love that it is all a gamble anyway. 🙂