Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2018, 176 pages.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, follows a single, 36-year old woman called Keiko Furukara who has worked part-time at the same 24/7 convenience store for 18 years, and, despite the concerns of her family and friends, she is totally fine with it. Keiko has always had trouble fitting in and acting “normal”, so she feels comfortable with the structure and concrete set of rules provided by this routine job. As a result, she becomes an exemplary convenience store worker, completely attuned to the requirements of her job, so much so that her day-to-day routine is arranged solely around serving the convenience store.

The time before I was reborn as a convenience store worker is somewhat unclear in my memory.

Admittedly, I was worried going into this book that Keiko would be one of those annoyingly quirky characters that just feel unrealistic, but her idiosyncrasies and very rational way of thinking actually made her a charming protagonist to read about. Keiko has always been aware that people find her very strange, so she tries to mirror the behaviour and speech patterns of her colleagues in order to appear more “normal”. But as she gets older, the people around her start to express more frequently their concern about her unusual career choice and her non-existent love life. Even though her strict adherence to the convenience store’s training manual makes her a perfect employee, she worries that people still view her as inadequate.

The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me. Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.

The book is quite humorous, but it takes a darker turn when Keiko meets Shiraha, a lazy, opinionated, unattractive, and basically unemployable man, who is also an outcast, but for very different reasons. He treats Keiko very badly, but she finds a way to use him to appear more “normal” in the eyes of her co-workers, family, and friends.

In essence, the novel is a biting exploration of the societal expectations placed on women. Women are pressured to contribute to society either by getting married and having children, or/and pursuing a challenging professional career.  Moreover, the book shows that, sadly, it is often that women are the ones who uphold these societal expectations and put pressure on each other. Even though the story specifically deals with the norms of Japanese society, I think the issues discussed here are relevant in all parts of the world. It’s an insightful look at how society treats people who are outside the “norm” and do not conform to its criteria.

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend this quick and clever read about an unconventional love story between a woman and a convenience store. 🙂

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

I don’t make plans for failing with my personal goals. Pursue success and deal with failure if and as you hit upon it.

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Edition: Oneworld Publications, 2018, 352 pages.

We first meet Gael Foess, the main character of Orchid & The Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes, when she is suspended from primary school for trying to set up a scheme of selling “virginity pills” to her schoolmates.

This opening scene pretty much indicates what the reader can expect from this character in the rest of the book. Gael is a very assertive, intelligent, and manipulative protagonist. It doesn’t help that she comes from a very privileged background. Her father Jarleth is a successful banker, and her mother Sive is a highly regarded orchestral conductor, but they’re both very self-absorbed and distant parents, so Gael is very close and protective of her younger brother Guthrie, a gifted artist, who suffers from a somatic delusional disorder, but believes that he has epilepsy.

The novel is set over a 10-year period, starting in 2002, and follows Gael’s journey moving between Dublin, London, and New York. It mainly focuses on her relationship with her family, and the lengths that she will go to get ahead in life. The book also deals with the consequences of the 2008 global economic crisis, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The title of the book is a reference to the concept of the arrangement between an orchid and a wasp, as described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. At first, I thought that the title might be a reference to the close relationship between Gael and Guthrie, but as I read on, I realised that it actually best describes the relationship between Gael and her father. Jarleth is a cunning businessman, who has his own set of beliefs on how to succeed in life:

“[…] we have a very simple choice to make. Do we aspire to have worth and influence and risk tragedy; or do we aspire towards love and togetherness and risk that it won’t have been enough. You can’t have both aspirations be equally weighted.”

Their relationship feels very competitive. Gael jumps at every chance to criticise his views and tactics, and, at the same time, she is totally oblivious of how closely she resembles her father in her ambitions to succeed and the, often deceitful, methods that she is ready to use to achieve her goals. In addition, she is determined to also use her skills to further the careers of her mother and brother, even though they don’t welcome or appreciate her efforts.

I must admit that I feel quite conflicted about this book. While Gael is a compelling protagonist to follow because of her almost sociopathic personality and her uncompromising drive to get what she wants in life, at some parts, it became quite tiring to spend so much time with her. I wished that more time was spent on the other characters, particularly Guthrie’s storyline. I found him to be a very intriguing character that could have been explored in more depth.

The book contains some very astute observations about our contemporary society, and makes you think about the limits to which you might be willing to go in order to fulfil your ambitions, however, I struggled to connect with any of these characters on an emotional level. I constantly felt like I was being held at arm’s length from them, but, despite its flaws, I think it’s an impressive debut novel, and Gael is a very unconventional and memorable protagonist. If you are fascinated by unlikeable characters, I suggest you give this book a try.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

“I have gradually learned that everyone, absolutely everyone of every size, is out to get something. People want things. It comes to them naturally. Of course they get more skilful with age, and they’re no longer so disarmingly obvious, but the goal doesn’t change.”

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Edition: NYRB Classics, 2009, 181 pages.

Set in a small, remote village during a bleak and cold Finnish winter, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, is a suspenseful and unsettling story about the lies that we tell ourselves and to others. It’s a fascinating character study of two women, with very different outlooks on life, and the complex relationship that develops between them.

Katri Kling, a young woman with striking yellow eyes and a gift for mathematics, is an outsider in the local village because of her brutally honest and forthright way of interacting with the other residents of the village. She is fiercely protective of her younger brother Mats, who is obsessed with adventure stories, particularly sea adventures, and Katri is determined to provide him with financial security and fulfil one of his biggest dreams. Anna Aemelin is a privileged and eccentric illustrator of children’s books, who lives alone in a house on the outskirts of the village that she inherited from her parents. She is very reclusive, rarely leaves the house and gets all her supplies delivered, so she seems rather oblivious and naive of the outside world.

The book is an excellent example of minimalistic writing, and Jansson is incredible at building suspense. Not a word is wasted, and you are never quite sure who you can trust or who is the “True Deceiver” in this story. Jansson’s descriptions of the winter landscape are so evocative that the bleak setting becomes an integral part of the narrative. The smallest actions and simplest exchanges between the characters are infused with tension. On a fundamental level, Katri and Anna represent two opposing worldviews. Katri seems to believe in objective truth, even though her pursuit of it often involves deceit, while Anna feels comfortable leading a life that is full of “white” lies. Essentially, both of these women have developed opposing strategies of coping with their isolation and the difficulties of everyday life. Their interactions provoke a change in both women as they are forced to adapt to the flaws of each other and recognise that their perceptions of themselves are crumbling and transforming.

It’s a subtle and disquieting character study of two unusual, very interesting women. This was my first adult book by Jansson, and I was very impressed.

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The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also sensed that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.

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Edition: Vertigo, 2018, 400 pages.

Many books are published every year that detail the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II, but The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo, and originally published in 1942, is one of those rare books that provides us with an almost eye-witness account of the time when these horrifying events where still unfolding, and without the hindsight that later novels about this time period have.

The novel begins with the escape of seven prisoners from the Westhofen concentration camp who were imprisoned there for their communist beliefs, and their escape causes a turmoil among the Nazi officers, who are tasked by their Commandant with recapturing them within a week, as well as the local community, who live in a town close to the concentration camp. Almost all of the fugitives are soon recaptured, except for one, George Heisler, who manages to evade his pursuers, and is on the run. But who can he trust in this precarious situation? As George tries to stay ahead of his pursuers, the novel uncovers the many layers of the fascist regime, vividly evoking the atmosphere of fear, distrust, and oppression, and providing a glimpse into the lives, beliefs, hopes, and fears of ordinary Germans during this time.

The book mainly focuses on the effects that the escape has on the local community, as asks important questions about how informed the local German population was about what was going on in the camps on a daily basis. Some of the most memorable and chilling scenes of the book were the ones that described how the townspeople continued to lead their ordinary lives so close to the horrors that were happening almost next door in the concentration camp. We see different facets of the local community, some are willing to help George, and others, wilfully, out of fear, or simply ignorance, choose to not get involved. When George first arrives in the town, he is struck by the sheer normality of the situations that he sees on the streets:

In Westhoven he’d pictured a street here differently. He thought he would see a feeling of shame in every face, on every cobblestone, and that sorrow would mute the steps and voices and even the children’s games. The street here was calm; the people looked happy.

This is an important read that documents a particular moment in history and shows the insidious, almost banal, rise of evil.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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Edition: Atlantic Books, 2018, 400 pages.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, was the June pick for the Distracted by Books reading group on Goodreads. Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian author, who is best known for her novel When the Doves Disappeared (translated by Lola Rogers), and, in her fiction, she often explores the complex 20th-century history of Estonia, particularly focusing on the period when Estonia was under Communist control.

Jumping between two time periods – the 90s, shortly after the collapse the USSR, and the 50s, during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia – Purge is a story of two women who, to some extent and for different reasons, are living on the fringes of society. The novel starts off in 1992, when Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the Estonian countryside, finds a young girl in her front yard one day and decides to help her. We soon find out that Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim, who was taken to Germany with promises of a better life. She manages to escape her captors, and finds shelter at Aliide’s house, even though Aliide is highly suspicious that her arrival may be more than just purely coincidental.

As the story unfolds, we see that both women are very complex, resilient, and flawed characters, and there’s a creeping sense that you can’t trust neither of them, perfectly reflecting the time period when these events are taking place. The book vividly captures the atmosphere of Estonia (as well as the other two Baltic States) in the 1990s and the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR. All three Baltic States finally regained their independence and were going through major changes to dismantle the structures of the old Soviet regime and regain their identity. As shown in the book, some people managed to quickly exploit the uncertainty of those turbulent times, and seize the various opportunities to get rich quickly, often through illegal means. At the same time, other people found themselves lost and unable to adapt to the fundamental changes that were happening in the country.

Similarly, the sections of the book set during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia manage to capture the constant sense of suspicion, fear and distrust that had poisoned the hearts of regular people, since anyone, from their neighbours, friends, co-workers, and even family members, could turn out to be an informant. Purge provides a window into the life of Estonians during the Soviet regime, and it’s an excellent exploration of how interpersonal relationships are affected when caught up in major historical changes. The book also illustrates the fundamental conflicts that remain unresolved and continue to divide the people of Estonia even today. I found that, in essence, the book seeks to find an answer to the question: “Can you ever free yourself from your past memories and decisions?”

A gritty and thought-provoking read, perfect for the upcoming Women in Translation month in August!

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