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 Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)

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A science fiction/speculative fiction read that turns the typical gender power balance on its head and examines a possible result.

What would happen if women were suddenly given the power in this world? How would they end up treating men and each other? Is absolute power corrupting even for the “gentler” sex?

Published in 2016 (but written during 2014/15 during the early days of the Orange Goblin’s ascendancy), this novel is a book-within-a-book about a world that’s just different enough to be off-kilter for the reader of today.

In this near future, women have developed the ability to pass electricity through their fingertips, which over the years leads them to become the dominant gender. How would this would impact the development of world society over a few thousand years?

This is a memorable read that portrays a rather frightening world that’s evolving as the reader travels with the book’s characters. After decades, perhaps centuries, of being told that women are the “gentler” sex, when they are given power to dominate the world’s structure, do they treat the opposite gender as people think women would treat them?

The novel’s main protagonist is Mother Eve, who has grown up in an abusive environment and develops into the matriarch of a popular worldwide religion, and the book follows her development along with three other characters impacted by this change.

The NY Times book critic, Ron Charles, calls this book “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’” and others have named it “the millennial’s ‘Handmaid Tale’”, but however you categorize it, it’s a gripping plot that moves along at the speed of lightning (or at the speed of the weaponized electricity coming out of women’s palms).

It’s a very believable tale as well. Who is to say that evolution or biochemical pollution won’t bring change in the human species or others? Whatever the reason, this is an adaptation that completely disrupts the world as we know it.

It starts in teenage girls, and as the girls grow up and as they show older women how to use their (sometimes latent) power, the adults start to understand what it is and how to use it. World politics and current events are impacted to create a whole new society.

The set-up means an end result that is much more nuanced than the two genders just swapping places. The plot turns stereotypes on their sides. For example, there are women who start to dress as men to communicate submissiveness, and there are boys who start to dress as girls to seem more powerful. And then there is the question of rape…

This was a provocative read for me.  Are humans the same regardless of gender, or are they really that different due to their gender?

Interestingly enough, Alderman had already established herself as a bright new star on the writing front prior to this manuscript being published, and as a result and through a Rolex-sponsored partnership, Alderman ended up being mentored by Margaret Atwood herself. (She also thanks Ursula Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler in the acknowledgements so it seems that she was influenced by some very strong writers. Imagine all those conversations!)

(Slightly random aside: It was also one of former President Obama’s favorite reads of 2017… High praise indeed. 🙂 )

This was a thoughtful and disquieting read about a future very different from now. At this time of misogyny and #MeToo, this novel evaluates the power of power itself.