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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novella which so many people have been talking about of late.  Translated from its original Japanese by Ginny Tabley Takamori, and published in English in 2018, it has fast become an international bestseller, and is receiving praise from every direction. I felt, therefore, that it would be a great choice for my online book club, and we discussed it during February.

The blurb of Convenience Store Woman claims that Murata ‘brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan…  she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.’  The novella, and Murata’s prose style, have variously been compared to the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang, and the film Amelie, all of which I very much enjoy.

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Convenience Store Woman uses the first person perspective of Keiko Furukama, a woman in her mid-thirties, who has spent her entire adult life working in a convenience store outside Hiromachi Station in Tokyo.  Her parents were thrilled when she originally took the job whilst pursuing her studies, as they viewed her as odd, a misfit.  After several troubling incidents in her childhood, Keiko recognised how her natural behaviour was affecting her parents: ‘[They] were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.  I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home.  I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.’  Therefore, to feel as though their daughter was fitting in within a regimented environment was comforting to them.  Little do they know that Keiko has actually based her entire manner whilst working upon the store manual, ‘which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say’, and by observing the habits of her colleagues.  By doing this, Keiko essentially enables herself to ‘play the part of a normal person’.

Whilst Keiko is content, and feels comfortable in her job, she is aware that she is not living up to societal expectations, and that her family is worrying about her.  There is such a focus in the wider society on the importance of marriage – even if it is not to the right person, it seems – and women are referred to as old maids, spinsters, and ‘grubby’ for not conforming.  This all seemed very Jane Austen-esque to me; it is a very old-fashioned attitude.  Keiko says: ‘I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.’  Although she has no understanding as to why societal constructs want every woman of her age to conform to marriage and motherhood, she is still aware that others perceive her to be somehow deviant, or abnormal, for trying to maintain her own independence in a way which makes sense to her.  I found this part of her character desperately sad; she recognises that unless she puts on an act, she would not fit in anywhere: ‘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.’  It is never explicitly stated what might be wrong with Keiko, and I would not like to speculate, particularly considering that this is such a short book.

The first half of the novella sets out Keiko’s job, and the way in which she tries to fit in with her colleagues, in the same manner as she tried to imitate her peers when she was young; for instance, shopping at the same boutique as a stylish coworker of around the same age as herself, and copying what others do, despite the way in which she largely does not understand the reasoning for this.  In her job, Keiko tells us, ‘speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.’  She takes a great deal of pride in her efficiency and knowledge: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest moments and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response.  My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire.’  She is proud, too, that she has found somewhere she belongs, and something to do which others rely on.  At the outset of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko reflects: ‘It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move.  I am one of those cogs, going round and round.  I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.’  She sees herself as an important, and irreplaceable part of the store: ‘When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m so much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.’

The second half of the novella is concentrated far more upon colleague Shiraha’s place within Keiko’s life, and the ways in which they interact with one another.  From their meeting onwards, I did begin to find Convenience Store Woman rather unsettling in places; for instance, when Keiko invites Shiraha to stay at her apartment, and a strange conversation ensues.  Some of the things which he says to her – especially considering that they had only recently met, and he knew little about Keiko – made me feel uncomfortable, and even outraged.  He tells her: ‘”Your womb is probably too old to be of any use, and you don’t even have the looks to serve as a means to satisfy carnal desire.”‘  If anyone spoke to me in this way, I would not hesitate to tell them in no uncertain terms to leave my house and never contact me again.  Keiko, however, just listens quite passively, and does not seem to see a problem with Shiraha addressing her in this manner.

I certainly found Keiko to be an interesting character, but I cannot say that I warmed to her at all.  I felt sympathetic towards her to an extent, but I do not believe that creating empathy for her protagonist was Murata’s driving intention.  It seems a real shame that the second half of the novella took focus away from herself, and projected it onto her moody, feckless, and unlikeable colleague, Shiraha.  He is a character whom, whilst disrespectful and rude to customers and colleagues, conforms to societal constructs by divulging that the only reason he applied for the job was to find a wife.

I found the translation of Convenience Store Woman rather awkward at times, particularly with regard to the uncomfortable phrasing which Tapley Takamori decided to include.  For instance, Keiko refers to people who do not fit in as ‘foreign objects’, and Shiraha rather bizarrely declares: ‘… they all seem to think nothing of raping me just because I’m in the minority.’  It may well be that this prose is deliberately awkward in order to mimic Keiko’s own ineptitude, but I did find it a little too much at times.  In the past, I have found quite a lot of Japanese fiction rather awkward in its translation, but Convenience Store Woman is the most consistently awkward which I can remember reading.

Whilst I did enjoy the first half of the novella, I found this book largely an uneven and problematic one.  None of the characters around Keiko felt quite realistic, and their bad traits – particularly in the case of Shiraha – were too much; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Other characters felt like merely stereotypes and cliches, and seemed to feature in the story merely to provide a contrast to Keiko.  I also found the dynamics between them quite odd.  I suppose that I am firmly lodged within the minority, but I did not find Convenience Store Woman anywhere near as compelling as I expected to.

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‘Owl Sense’ by Miriam Darlington ****

Esteemed nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense ‘a beautiful book; wise and sharp-eared as its subject.’  Darlington, who has a PhD in Nature Writing and teaches Creative Writing at Plymouth University, has honed in on the owl as her focus in this part-memoir, part-historical musing, and part-nature book.

9781783350742The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia.  We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’  Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species.  In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’  She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.

Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild.  In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence.  What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?’

Early on, Darlington explains her reasoning for this particular project, writing: ‘So what can a writer do, faced with a world whose wildness appears to be unravelling?…  This is the story of my journey to explore those ecological details, paying attention to the incremental shift owls have experienced, and still are experiencing, from wildness to a kind of enforced domesticity.  I wanted to immerse myself in their world, from the wild owls to the captives that are kept in aviaries and sanctuaries and beyond, to look into the mythology, kinship, otherness and mystery that wild owls offer.’

Woven in with her research about owls, and the adventures which she goes on, is the fact that her autistic teenage son, Benji, ‘succumbs to a mysterious and disabling illness.’  In the book’s prologue, she reflects on her decision to continue with her project: ‘If I had known my year of owls was to be so difficult I might have faltered.  The illness stretched out into one, then two, then three years.  Benji did not get better.  Alongside the fears and challenges my owl research slowed and expanded.’  However, she does recognise a real positive of still continuing her research, despite her son’s predicament: ‘… far from distracting me from my family and my roots, my journeys deepened my sense of home and my ability to listen to what was near.’

Darlington opens Owl Sense by describing an encounter which she has with a young Great Grey Owl in Devon, whose handler has taken her to a public place to ensure that she gets used to people.  When she touches the owl, Darlington writes: ‘Her softness took my breath away.  Deadly beauty.  She turned her face towards me and I noticed its astounding circumference.  There is a narrow area that falls between pleasing and preposterous, I thought, and this owl’s circular face and bright yellow eyes fitted into it with perfect grace.’

I very much enjoyed the way in which Darlington sets out her memoir.  Its structure is simple; eight different sections correspond to eight species of owl: Barn, Tawny, Little, Long-eared, Short-eared, Eurasian Eagle, Pygmy, and Snowy.  These chapters are both separate and interconnected, and allow her to weave in her own journeys across the continent.  Her fixation upon these species allows her to take part in some fascinating, and important, research: she works on a barn owl population survey in Devon; finds fledged Tawny owlets close to her friend’s secluded house; travels on an ecological trip to Serbia, the best place in the world to see Long-eared owls; and spots the smallest owl in the world, the Pygmy, in southeastern France, with a highly enthusiastic guide.

As well as the efforts which are being made to help different owl species around Europe, Darlington also draws attention to the problems which they face in the wild, from the wide use of rodenticide which poisons the owls’ food supply, and then the owls themselves, to the loss of habitat.

Owl Sense is as deeply personal as it is a wider treatise on why owls are so important, and the ways that we can protect them.  I found Darlington’s authorial voice to be warm, honest, and filled with moments of beauty.  Her prose is so informative, but suffused with a light and engaging touch.  She notices the tiniest things, and draws our attention to their importance accordingly; for instance, the power which she weaves into a description of the calls of barn owls near her home: ‘… a screech, then a reply, as if they were throwing lightning bolts to one another, as if each was catching the other’s cry in its craw and lobbing it back.’

Reading about Darlington’s devotion to such a magnificent creature was a real treat, and I am very much looking forward to picking up her earlier work about otters as soon as I possibly can.  Owl Sense is a lovely, and thought-provoking book, which is sure to appeal to any lover of nature writing.  I did find some of the comparisons which Darlington drew between the owls and her own family a little cheesy, but for me, this was the only downside, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest.

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