Tag: Translated

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I received a digital ARC of this book from Grove Press on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Grove Press for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me. These past two weeks I’d been asked fourteen times why I wasn’t married. And twelve times why I was still working part-time. So for now I’d decide what to eliminate from my life according to what I was asked about most often I thought. Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now.

Keiko Furukura has been working at the same convenience store since she was eighteen. While this was fine when she was just starting out, she’s thirty-six now, unmarried and childless. Keiko is content among the contents in the aisles of her store; however, her family and friends are worried, and their worry is starting to upset the careful order of Keiko’s days. To assuage everyone’s worries and restore her own equilibrium, Keiko resolves to make the changes that will lesson their scrutiny and return her to her quiet life—except that along the way, Keiko discovers that the life she wants and the life others want for her may not be reconcilable.

As you can guess from the title, much of the action takes place in a Tokyo convenience store where Keiko has spent over half her life as a part-time employee. Though translated, the book is easy to read; the only nuance necessary for an American audience to really appreciate the story is to understand the place of convenience stores in Japanese culture. A Japanese convenience store is not simply a 7/11 offering old hot dogs and questionable coffee. Japanese konbini are safe, brightly-lit, spaces that also sell fresh food you would actually want to eat. Japanese culture in general highly values excellent customer service; accordingly, konbini employee behavior is pretty tightly prescribed. This blog includes pictures of a poster instructing konbini employees on how to appear and interact with customers. This one has an excellent summary on things that set konbini apart from their American cousins.

Character Study
With that introduction, Convenience Store Woman is a character study of Keiko set largely within the walls of her konbini. The early parts of the book have flashes of Keiko’s early life—where she finds a dead bird on the playground surrounded by mourning children and responds by taking it to her mother because her father enjoys eating birds (presumably a different kind of bird but I’m not actually sure)—Keiko believes she is contributing something good while her tiny compatriots and their parents find her to be a monster for not mourning the tiny death in the park. Similarly, Keiko ends a fight in first grade by hitting a boy over the head with a shovel—everyone was yelling to stop the fight and this was the most expedient way to do so.

Having learned that her instincts and interpretation of social cues are apparently wired differently from those around her, Keiko turned inward. She is an expert observer and mimic, designing the details of her life—her clothing, her speech patterns, her topics of conversation—around those she sees and hears from her fellow coworkers. Keiko’s life is ordered and neat, she knows what to do and what to expect at any given point in her day-to-day life. Her only moments of discomfort occur when others around her question why she is still working at the konbini and why she has never had a boyfriend.

Though it is not stated anywhere in the book or in any interviews with the author, Keiko’s presentation strongly reminded me of someone on the autism spectrum. She thrives on order and being given clear expectations and instructions for her speech and behavior. She is extremely rational—the moment with the shovel as a child is less an example of how Keiko might be prone to violence (she’s not) and more an example of how she isn’t bound by social convention in coming to the most expedient resolution to the problem everyone identified.

Ultimately, whether she is or isn’t on the spectrum, isn’t the point here—Keiko is who she is, labels or no. Keiko’s different wiring is what makes Convenience Store Woman such a fascinating character study. She is not someone who resists convention for the sake of being different—indeed, she can embrace conventions in speech and dress when to do so makes sense in her life and abhors standing out. That this is decidedly not Keiko is highlighted by the appearance of another character, Shiraha—a character who drove me so nuts I almost stopped reading.

Turns Out Entitled Men Are Everywhere
Shiraha is entitled—simultaneously trying every way to not work while complaining about how we’re all going back to the stone-age and he’s so put upon. We should apparently pay him just to grace us with his presence and bad mood. He resists doing what he’s told and fitting in seemingly for the sake of resisting. He is everything bad in the stereotypical white man, except he’s Japanese in Japan. I suppose it means they’re everywhere.

But seriously, his character speaks in sweeping, offensive paragraphs that nearly turned me off the book. I can see his use as a foil to Keiko and appreciate that a male was used to further a female’s character development but this “depressing Paleolithic nightmare man” is far less charming and fun to read than your usual manic pixie dream girl. His character was designed to be this over the top; I just have an internal limit of misogyny I can read, even when it serves a purpose in a work of fiction. Murata hit it with Shiraha.

While Convenience Store Woman is narrative fiction, very little actually happens (and nothing dramatic). Instead the interactions and events serve to introduce another layer of Keiko to the reader and, in some ways, Keiko to herself. In trying to change her life, Keiko comes to appreciate what it is she can and can’t live with for the sake of others.

This narrative structure has the effect of making Convenience Store Woman a slower read. The mercy here is that the book is remarkably short—it’s 176 pages and I moved through it fast enough on my kindle that the progress bar made me double-check to make sure I’d received a full book and not a sample. This length is just right for the book—because so little happens, much longer would have felt like the book dragged. Instead, I felt like I got to know Keiko just the right amount for both of us and then was able to close the book and move on.

Published: June 12, 2018 by Grove Press (@groveatlantic)
Author: Sayaka Murata (Ginny Tapley Takemori, Translator)
Date read: June 10, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

Review: The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal


One day, she must find out what direction time flows in—whether it is linear or the quick circle of a hula hoop, whether it curls and loops or is coiled like the spiral of a snail’s shell, whether it can take the form of a tube wave, sucking up the sea, the entire universe in its flip side. Yes, she needs to understand what it is that makes up the passing of time.
One hour later, death clears its throat, knocks politely on the door, a moving stain, irregularly shaped, opacifying a clearer, larger shape: yes, there it is, that’s death.
-description of a CT scan

As Bill Gates noted, The Heart is “poetry disguised as a novel.” It is a 242-page love letter to words and language. De Kerangal’s sentences roll in your mouth like chocolates, melt as the eyes caress the sentences. I was enraptured with this book; however, it will not be everyone’s—or most people’s—cup of tea.

The entirety of the “action” in the book occurs in a twenty-four hour span of time as nineteen year-old Simon Limbres rises early to surf and unexpectedly meets his end returning from the waves with his two friends who survive the accident. His parents rage, whimper, and rage again until, quietly, they agree to donate his organs. To donate his heart. The book concludes as the heart is restarted in the chest of Claire, a translator with three children. This barebones action serves as the scaffolding around which de Kerangal wraps her words, conjuring the depths of grief juxtaposed with the clinical efficiency of a hospital preparing for an organ transplant. The book is driven primarily by language and character rather than plot/action.

Indeed, if The Heart is a story of something in particular, it is less the story of Simon, and more the story of the landscape of Grief. We do a disservice to Grief today. We look over it, feeling that to call attention to it would be ruder than to pretend nothing is wrong and to move on. We brush it under the rug, out of sight out of mind, but not out of feeling, out of pain. The Heart forces the reader to confront the raw grief of Simon’s parents and later, that of his first love, yet the cadence of the words soothe the jagged edges. The language is the balm on the wound. The first half of the book is best in this regard—it is most clearly the study of Grief as the reader follows Simon’s parents as they discover the new hole in their world and attempt to adjust to this new reality, despite Simon looking so very alive in the bed, still warm though no longer present. The second half of the book, while also gorgeously written, serves in some ways as an extended conclusion. If the first half is the removal of Simon’s heart, the removal of his parents’ core, then second half is the tying off and cauterizing of each vein, the preparing of the body now that life is gone. I do not say this to say that the book drags at the end, only to say that with Grief no longer center stage, the remainder of the action feels like a quiet resolution, the lone nurse preparing the body now emptied of its vital organs for burial.

It is without exaggeration that I say this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I read, re-read, and re-re-read again, marveling both at de Kerangal’s skill as well as that of her translator, Sam Taylor. The Heart was originally written in French, yet even in English the cadence, the rise and fall of de Kerangal’s words is a marvel. The words flow so smoothly as to become almost hypnotic.

The Heart is for those who revel in poetry, who read and re-read sentences, deconstruct and diagram. For those who enjoy reading with a dictionary close by. The Heart is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. It is not a book for the beach or a pool. It is a book that lingers, the beat of the words slowly fading. This is not a book I recommend for everyone or, indeed, many. If you have never re-read a finely tuned sentence solely to appreciate the cadence, the way the words are chosen just so, this is not the book for you. This also isn’t your book if you are not in a place to bear a very raw representation of parental grief for a child lost far too young.

After reading (and disliking) My Name is Lucy Barton earlier this year, I assumed I was one of those people who has to have action. The Heart showed me this isn’t true—if there isn’t action I need language. The Heart has what I missed in Lucy Barton and is another book I will be purchasing for my own library.

Published February 14, 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (@fsgbooks)
Author: Maylis de Kerangal, Translator: Sam Taylor
Date read: June 26, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars