Thirty six-year-old Keiko is an oddball in every sense of the word. Even as a child, she has never quite fit in as she recounts in a matter-of-fact tone an incident in the playground where she hits a boy over his head with a shovel in order to break up a fight. As an adult, she finally finds her calling in life as a convenience store worker. Keiko quickly learns the social norms and behaviours expected of her, including how to dress and speak, and what to do to excel at her duties at work. At the end of the work day, Keiko takes comfort in fitting in and finds fulfilment as a functioning member of society. To the horror of her friends and family, she has been contented with working in the store for the past 18 years. They pressure her about her lowly position and about finding a partner, which Keiko eventually does in the most unconventional of ways. She comes to an arrangement with a former convenience store employer, Shiraha - A good-for-nothing bum who moves in with her, sponges off her, eats her food and continually puts her down. Keiko is fine with keeping up with appearances in this sexless and loveless marriage of convenience, as long as she gets to work at the store.
Translated from Japanese, the novel still retains the flavour of the original, and is bittersweet and dream-like in parts. What stood out for me is Keiko's character as I am kept guessing as to how she would react. In some instances, I was fascinated and even mildly shocked by her decisions and assertions, such as her comment that she regards Shiraha not as a lover but as a pet. Despite her quirks and her possibly autistic nature, Keiko comes across as an endearing individual. The New Yorker aptly describes the novel as "a love story between a misfit and a store". It may be mildly disconcerting at times, but I find myself on Keiko's side, as she realises there is no pleasing everyone and that she needs to do what makes her happy and gives her fulfilment in life.
by Dawn Tan