review of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
keiko Karakura is a 36 year old woman, working 5 days a week in a Convenience Store, where she has been for the last 18 years. She lives for the convenience store including doing her own shopping in the store she works, her breakfast coming from the store, her lunch from the store and dinner from the store. This brings societal pressure from both family and friends to form a relationship and to start a family (she admits to having "no awareness of her own sexuality", she seems to be very sex adverse in the novel and probably asexual (asexuality is mentioned in my edition on page 37). She also seems to be on the autism spectrum. She struggles to relate to people outside of work and needs help from her sister to come up with preplanned answers to the difficult questions. The structure of the convenience store works for her as everything she needs to do, is covered in the manual. The repetitiveness and organisation of the store puts her in a settled mood). Her sister wishes Keiko would visit her and her son more but Keiko doesn't understand the difference between her nephew and a friends baby. In social situations in the store, she tries to mimic the other staff's style of speaking and dress in order to fit in.
As a cover for her unwillingness and difficulty at dealing with the questions on her relationship status, she decides to enlist a former colleague Shirhaha to play the role of a boyfriend/partner but he seems an awful person (misogynistic, lazy). I think the pressures that keiko faces are very relateable to problems other asexuals face, trying to appear and fit in with a society that doesn't really understand a lack of interest and lack of sexual attraction.
There are some indicators I find on how I feel about books. A disappointing book may have things like, you keep going to your mobile phone to check stuff on it, you take breaks and your mind wanders. Similarly, a book that you enjoyed have other indicators, like the only break you took when reading was to have some tea, you read it through in a single evening when you originally intended to only read for an hour but instead you just finished it, you decide to skip watching stuff on tv that you probably would normally watch (also helped was new england patriots thrashing la chargers 35-7 in the odd break to see the score at 8pm). the list of those reason you enjoyed a book all apply to this one.
In short, I loved this book. Apart from my tea break (and to check the American Football score), I wanted to just read it, I loved Keiko and the voice that Murata and Tapley Takemori gave Keiko. It was witty, endearing, observant. The reason I wanted to keep reading it was I wanted to know that she got on ok.
thanks to both Sayaka Murata and Ginn Tapley Takemori for this superb novel that I loved.
* * * * *
Review of The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuku Horie, translated by Geraint Howells
This short story collection has three stories in it. In the first, the title story, a man visits his friend from Petanque in Western France and has a weird dream involving the footpath becoming bears. Further to this, both recollecting of the past and looking at the present where the narrator gets to know the friend's neighbour and her blind son. The friend is Jewish and there is remembrance to events of World War 2 in the novel. The second story is about the narrator joining a woman on a beach to remember the anniversary of her brother's death (his friend) and the third involves two friends breaking into an old castle, one where the groundskeeper would even refuse the President of the Republic if he didn't have proper authorisation
The Bear and Paving Stone * * * * *
Sandman is Coming * * * 1/2
The Old Castle * * * *
All three stories were very good and I really enjoyed this collection, rather than full plotted stories, this is more about interaction between people than intrinsic plots and complicated storylines. At times, funny, other times heartfelt, it is always a pleasure when a short story collection does not let me down in the reading of it.
* * * *
If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for!
Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever.
Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hidden from his friends. Connell is popular and able to get dates with pretty much anyone he wants – even the most popular girl in school.
Connell and Marianne have a clandestine relationship that Connell tries to deny is actually a relationship, and Marianne seems to be grateful for any company she can get, regardless of the terms.
Each chapter moves the clock forward by a few weeks or a few months and the pair disappear off to Dublin to go to university. Dublin’s a different place altogether and Marianne’s wealth and intelligence bring ready acceptance into the beautiful people. Connell, meanwhile, is the poor bogtrotter who struggles to find his niche.
Then, like a Russian novel, these two friends drift in and out of one another’s lives and in and out of one another’s beds. In between their brief periods of togetherness, we tick off heaps of social issues that are of great importance to undergraduates: academic pressure; prizes and scholarships; abusive older boyfriends; parties; finding the next drink…
I suppose the theme of the novel is about social class and power imbalances. How in youth, fitting in is about reaching downwards whereas in adulthood it is about aspirations and reaching upwards. It’s like Bill Gates used to say: be nice to nerds because one day you’ll work for them. And associated with class, you have the urban/rural divide with the Dublin Jackeens ruling the roost, only admitting those from the big houses into their midst. But at the same time, there is a hollowness to this belonging. The sacrifices you have to make to your integrity as you adapt to fit in will ultimately lead to hollow feelings.
This is a novel that could happily have been written twenty, thirty years ago. Things don’t change. But people do – and a novel that might have seemed wonderful and insightful in my own youth now looks trivial. Student relationships were only ever interesting if you were in them. You always remember your first love, but then life happens. And life is more interesting.
Warlight is a story of espionage and intrigue, set in London in two distinct time spaces: the 1940s and 1959.
In the 1940s narrative, Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their parents have survived the war. Surviving the peace will not be so easy. First Nathaniel’s father leaves to work in Asia, and then his mother disappears. He and Rachel are brought up in the family home by a revolving cast of strange men who seem to drift around the edges of the criminal underworld. There are shady dealings with greyhounds and furtive nocturnal sailings up and down the Thames in a mussel barge. Nathaniel is at the transition from boy to man; he works in kitchens, sows wild oats and charms the various oddballs who hang around with his guardians. Until, one evening, this strange world collapses in on itself.
Moving to the 1959 section, Nathaniel is older and works for one of the government security agencies. This gives him an opportunity to investigate some of the mysterious events of the 1940s. In particular, we discover what happened to Nathaniel’s mother and her relationship with the curiously named Marsh Felon, the son of a thatcher who had worked on her roof many years previously.
For the first half, the reader is happy to go along with it all to see where it leads. Then, early in the second half, something goes awry. The point of view moves away from Nathaniel and somehow everything seems less immediate, less convincing. Nathaniel’s mother behaves inexplicably. Even when the explanation is attempted, it is inexplicable. As each character is explained in turn, the fundamental driving direction weakens more and more. It comes as no great surprise to the reader to discover that they everyone is a spook, but it is never clear how or why any of them became involved in espionage in the first place – or what they did while working as spies.
The evocation of an atmosphere is well done if somewhat clichéd. I mean, was the whole of the 1940s foggy? Were the streets really full of spivs that would embarrass Private Walker from Dad’s Army? Did spies really behave quite so – er – mysteriously?
The good outweighs the bad in Warlight. The first half and more is really compelling. The frustration is that the switch from intriguing to boring is quite sudden and quite irreversible. By the very end, with a greyhound nuzzling Nathaniel’s hand, there is an overwhelming sense that section after section has been added to get the wordcount up, but without any sense of whether it was actually adding to the story – which in a story-led novel is a problem.
Three and a half stars rounded down.
The literary fiction caravan comes to Neasden. Previously known only for the ashen-faced Ron Knee, Sid and Doris Bonkers and Private Eye (see p. 94); we find ourselves in a council estate following multiple points of view within a diverse community.
At first it looks as though it is going to be all about youth with Yusuf, Ardan and Selvon - but we also find other voices: Nelson, a Windrush generation man and Caroline, a refugee from the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The difficulty I had was in separating the different characters.
The youths, in particular, were interchangeable. One was a rapper - although I tended to forget this between references to rapping; one was apparently sporty; a couple of them were the sons of the former imam. But I couldn't tell you which was which. And they didn't seem to do much more than play football and eat at the chicken shop. One of them had an interest in a girl, I think. Nelson (who spoke in patois) and Caroline (who spoke in pretty convincing Belfast vernacular) were easier to pick, but their stories seemed somehow removed in both time and place.
There seemed to be a lot of action off camera. There had been the murder of a British soldier; there were areas cordoned off by police tape, there were crowds in the distance. But it was never quite clear what was going on or whether time was linear. Caroline's story, most of which took place in and around Belfast, was quite opaque and I had to keep flicking back and forth to see whether I had missed something - invariably I hadn't.
There were some elements of the plot, such as it was, that really didn't ring true. I didn't believe the Belfast story and couldn't see what Caroline had done that would have led to her forced exile; I didn't believe in the way Claude - a radical West Indian - would have treated Nelson; and I didn't believe that someone could be radicalised just after a single conversation with a scary new imam. I certainly didn't believe in the fire. Or the epilogue, which I thought was twee to the point of undermining the supposed force of the rest of the novel.
I guess the point the novel was trying to make was that every generation had its rebels and radicals; that they age and their crusades fade away; and therefore the current Islamophobia is probably a passing phenomenon that will be supplanted by something else in due course. And that's a viewpoint to which I would subscribe. I just didn't think this rather jumbled novel quite succeeded in providing new insight on the subject.