Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.

Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).

Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.

I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.

Synopsis

Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.

As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.

Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.

In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.

At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.

Verdict

Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?

Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.

Book Review – Spiral by Koji Suzuki

Spiral

Remember that creepy chick who crawled out of the well, through the TV set and straight into our nightmares? The Ring wreaked havoc on an entire generation in the 1990s – kids (or at least, me) were afraid to turn on their TV sets in fear that the long haired woman with extremely clean clothes (I wonder what cleaning agent she uses?)would appear and lead them to die a horrible death. The movie ushered in a whole generation of Japanese horror that was creepy and brilliant, relying more on psychological horror and fear of the unknown over jumpscares, busty blondes being stabbed, and gore.

But before the film, there was… the book. Ring was the first of a series of novels by Koji Suzuki, where Sadako(aforementioned creepy chick) curses anyone who watches her videotape, dooming them to die horribly a week after. 

I read the first book a couple of years back, and it was scary – way scarier than the movie, I must say. It was a great piece of horror, praised as ‘combining Haruki Murakami with Stephen King’. You can read my read my review here

In Ring, journalist Kazuyuki Asakawa investigates a series of mysterious deaths where the victims appeared to have died from no apparent cause at the same time. This leads him to a videotape containing weird footage, which claims that he will die within 7 days if he doesn’t follow instructions at the end of the tape – but it has been erased as a joke by the earlier victims. Racing against time, he enlists help from his friend Ryuji Takayama to unravel the curse. They discover that the footage was imprinted by psychic Sadako Yamamura, whose hatred from being raped and murdered was channeled into the tape. Towards the end of the novel, it seems that the pair have unraveled the mystery, followed Sadako’s wishes and laid her body (which was thrown into a well) to rest.

The last few pages show that this was not the case at all. Ryuji dies, while Asakawa lives. Realising that the key to unravel the curse is to make a copy of the tape, Asakawa races to show two other people the cursed tape in order to save his wife and child, both of whom had watched the tape out of curiousity. The novel ends….

I recently got the second book in the series, Spiral, which picks up where the first left off. Can it live up to the first ? 

Synopsis: 

Coroner Ando Mitsuo is struggling to lead a normal life after the death of his son by drowning and divorce from his wife. It is then that the body of his ex classmate Ryuji is discovered, dead from mysterious circumstances. Ando and his colleague Miyashita discover a tumour as the cause of death, with symptoms similar to smallpox (now extinct). During the autopsy, a piece of newspaper comes out of the suture, with numbers on it. Curious, Ando deciphers them and discover the code ‘Ring’. This leads him to Ryuji’s former assistant and lover, Mai Takano. In search for answers, the two strike up a friendship.

Unbeknownst to Ando, Mai watches the copy of the tape left at Ryuji’s home and is infected with the Ring virus. She then disappears. Unable to find her, Ando continues digging deeper into the mystery, and discovers a copy of The Ring, written by Asakawa as a report, which details the entire incidence. He discovers that Asakawa, while not dead, has become catatonic after a car crash, where his wife and daughter are found dead from the curse despite him copying the tapes and showing them to someone else.

Too late, he discovers that the curse has mutated from video tape into Asakawa’s report, and that he has been infected with the curse after reading it. During this mutation, the characteristics of the curse changed, which meant that he did not die within the week. But the virus and Sadako has other plans – not just for Asakawa, but for the entire human race which might lead it to its extinction. Worst still, the report will be published as a novel and made into film and adapted to various media, which makes it virtally unstoppable…

Verdict: 

Spiral starts off differently from Ring. In the first novel, fear radiated off the first few pages instantly as we witness the last moments of one of Sadako’s victims, before we are gradually eased into the story.

Spiral, on the other hand, starts off with Ando, giving us a background of his broken personal life, and his gradual ‘spiral’ into the mystery – first as an observer and later his increasing involvement which endangers his life. However, it builds tension brilliantly, as the reader flips page after page wondering what comes next. Is Mai alive? What is the true nature of Sadako’s mutated curse? The novel plays on psychological fears with simple but effective prose : I felt my hairs standing on end while reading some parts in a quiet room alone at night.

A main characteristic shared by the protagonists in both novels is curiosity. Just like Pandora, Asakawa and Ando can’t help but search for answers until the bitter end. And like the ‘heroes’ in our story, the curious reader has to finish the novel in spite of ourselves.

Rating: 7.5/10

 

 

 

 

Book Review – The Ring by Koji Suzuki

thering

The Ring novels by Koji Suzuki and it’s subsequent film adaptations have got to be one of THE most popular titles in modern day horror-based film and literature.  Published in 1991, it was made into a Japanese film in 1998, with an American remake in 2002. As a kid, I’ve watched both the Japanese and American films. I know many critics have applauded it for being ‘psychologically creepy’ but it has never left a deep impression in me.  I’ve actually forgotten how the actual movie was like. So when I saw the book up for sale at the local bookstore, I decided to grab a copy to read.

Set in modern day Japan, it revolves around a journalist (Asakawa), who, after the death of his niece and three other teens after visiting a cabin in the mountains, decides to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding their death. His investigations lead him to the cabin where he discovers a videotape which the teens had allegedly watched a week prior to their deaths. Curious, he watches the tape himself. Unknown to him is that the tape contains a powerful grudge conjured by one Sadako Yamamura, a dead telepathic whose curse carries on in the form of the videotape. Those watching it will die within seven days, unless they follow instructions at the end of the tape, which the teens have erased as part of a joke. Left with no hints, Asakawa must race against time to solve the riddle using his connections and skills as a journalist.

(Spoiler: I know one famous scene in the movie is the image of Sadako ‘crawling’ out of the TV set, but the book is rather different. She is never portrayed as having long hair covering her face in a ghostly white robe, as in the movie.)

Right from the get-go, the book wields a grip over the reader. It starts off describing how Asakawa’s niece was ‘visited’ by Sadako after a week from watching the tape. The tension and creepiness level is impalpable: it practically radiates off the pages. For people with vivid imaginations like mine, who find horror novels scarier than actual visual representations, it was nail-biting. You can almost feel as if you’re in the character’s shoes, and that once you turn behind, Sadako would be there.  The entire novel had me holding my breath, even though there was very little description of gore or violence. Suzuki Koji plays with the mind and things we fear on a subterranean conciousness – the unknown and the unseen. It leaves a long lasting impression compared to cheap shock stunts.

I loved the twist at the ending (I kind of knew since I’ve watched the movies, but it was still a brilliant turn) where the protagonist thought it was over.. and BAM. It’s not. Everything they had been working on was in the wrong direction. That sense of relief the reader feels when he thinks it’s over comes back full-fold. Suzuki (well the translator as well!) has a real way with using simple words that brings out vivid imagery. There are some things that are never explained, but the whole novel works out better that way.

The RIng is the first of a three-part novel. I’ve yet to read the other two, but if they’re anything like this, I’d gladly buy them.

I read a review which described the book as ‘one.. you really can’t bear to read and want to lock away and bury away as far as possible, yet at the same time each word is enticing, putting you in a trance, making you read on.’

I think that’s the closest about how it made me feel. I had to put it underneath a pile of books coz I have this silly thought whereby it would somehow come to life if I left it on top. hahaaa. Definitely a great read if you’re a horror fan. Just try not to read it before going to sleep like I did.

Rating: 8/10.