Keiko, 36 years old, unmarried, and childless, has been working at the same convenience store for the last 18 years. Aware of her own unusualness, she only feels at home in the store where she understands how to interact with people, and how to appear normal. Still, the pressures of society to conform by getting married, having children, or at least getting a more appropriate job, are always present.
This is a sweet and short book that is on one hand firmly rooted in Japanese culture with its focus on conformism and rigid societal expectations which often put undue pressure on young adults, and especially young women. On the other hand, however, it also has a lot to say about Western culture in which individualism is often praised only in theory, while those who truly do not conform can still find themselves on the edge of society or their group rather quickly.
The story is poignant without being cloying, especially because it is deeply funny, even if it is in a bittersweet way, for instance, when Keiko studies her co-workers and friends in order to mimic their way of speaking or their sense of dress, so that she can appear normal to them. Another example is her short-time co-worker and subsequent roommate Shiraha, an overgrown man-child that goes on ludicrous rants about humanity’s lack of progress since the Stone Age, about the roles of men and women, and his rights as a man. This should not be as funny as it is, but he is such a pathetic being that it is hard not to laugh. More worrying are the reactions of Keiko’s friends and family who celebrate this relationship because of the normalcy Keiko suddenly displays although they know that Shiraha is abusive and a leech.
I chose this book for the “Happy” square because despite its serious theme and its many profound and subtle observations, it is at heart a touching story with an uplifting message and a happy end that I could not help but smile at. Keiko acknowledges that she has to do what is right for her, and not what others think is right, even if it means that she does not conform to any societal norms; this is, after all, the only way for her, or any of us really, to be happy.
CBR12 Bingo: Happy