There is almost a sinister undertone to this brief, interesting novel. Keiko is a young woman working at the Hiiromachi branch of the Smile Mart, a convenience store – which sounds much cleaner, brighter, and customer-focused than any convenience store I’ve visited in the US. She sees herself as essentially reborn from the moment she takes this job. Early in the novel you know that Keiko is a little different – her flat affect in the narration and veneration of rules makes it immediately clear that Keiko participates in the world from a slight distance. She has a sister and parents that she cares for – and appreciates their care for her – but she does not easily understand of engage in social relationships. Through flashbacks, we learn that even as a child Keiko was confused by certain cultural norms – she does not grasp how others innately understand when and how to apply rules about life, death, and occasionally violence. As a child, she becomes aware – almost hyper-aware- of the fact that her family wishes to “fix” her. As a young adult, she applies for a job at the Smart Mart when it opens near her home – and she is reborn.
For 18 years, she lives near and works for the Smart Mart. She has a few people she spends time with socially outside of the store, but these people are not what most of us would consider to be true friendships. Keiko is always pretending, adapting the tone and style of whomever she is talking to while remaining privately baffled at their reactions. She rarely feels anger, or passion of any sort, and yet she recognizes that others need to see her present those feelings from time to time. She is rather obliging, and also eager to prevent people from trying to “fix” her, and so she has spent nearly two decades watching her peers get married, have children, try new jobs, while she remains a devoted part-time employee of the Smart Mart.
The plot moves a bit slowly – this book is more about a spare atmosphere, rather than plot – but the tension does mount a bit in the second half when Keiko makes her first attempt at developing a more socially acceptable life. She meets the limits of her seemingly endless acceptance of what others offer her, and discovers her best self expression. It’s a great book for a weekend afternoon!