Review: Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

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★★★★★

I went in to my local Waterstones looking for a book I could read in one sitting – I really wanted a book I could just binge. I will confess I didn’t actually look at this book myself, it was my sister who picked it up and said “this seems to be your level of weird” that ended up winning me over. Let me say now, she’s good at picking books.

Convenience Store Woman follows Keiko Furukura – a woman in her mid-30s who has worked part time in a convenience store for the last 18 years, much to the dismay of her family and few friends. We find out very early on in the book that Keiko has never been a “normal” woman by societies standards; she’s practical, needs routine, and takes social cues and conversational tactics from other people around her. As a child we see her getting told off for her way of doing things, and her natural response was to silence herself and observe, acting through imitation of her peers and putting on a facade of normality to please her family. As a 36 year old woman in her society, it’s expected of her at this point of her life to be married, have children, have a full time job – or at least actively be searching for them – but that’s not what Keiko wants. All Keiko wants is a quiet life, she’s happy being her and she doesn’t want to change for anyone; not her family, not her friends. She wants to exist in her bubble of routine.

In an effort to appease her friends and family, both of which she has been lying to in order to get them off of her back, she ends up in a very bizarre situation with an ex-coworker who is absolutely infuriating, but similar to her in a number of ways. Where she finds comfort and purpose working at the shop, he doesn’t want to conform to society and lashes out. But Keiko, being her wonderful self, sees it almost as an experiment and reacts in the most incredible ways.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, because at just over 150 pages, I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who wants to read it.

My first impressions of Keiko as a character were that it was an almost perfect representation of someone who is both on the autism spectrum and is completely asexual – something you don’t get a lot of in fiction, especially from a female protagonist. Her understanding of humans and relationships, how she mimics people in social situations to appear “normal”, her need of routine and guidance and rules. I loved her as a character, and I identified with her enormously. I honestly could have read 200 pages more of her day-to-day in the convenience store because she’s just so wonderful.

So, it was very easy for me to give this book 5 stars, if only because Keiko was a joy to have in my life for a couple of hours while I read this. If you want a good representation of female autism in fiction, I’d highly recommend this!

Review: Human Acts – Han Kang

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Rating – 4*

I feel very conflicted about this book, on the one had it is a masterpiece – I cannot deny that, however I didn’t feel that compulsion to read it. It was a book I could put down and not read for a while, and that is what disappointed me. Human Acts is a brutal book, and tells of a period of South Korean history that I didn’t even know happened.

The book is split in to 6 chapters, each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and also using a variety of different narrative voices. Each of these voices is so distinct and unique it’s quite special – much like The Vegetarian was – and I think that Han Kang’s ability to capture so many different voices, and Deborah Smith’s ability to then translate them, is incredible. Often, when there are many different voices in a novel, they get lost amongst each other but with the combination of Kang and Smith that just doesn’t happen.

Human Acts really drained me reading it, I think I should have just set aside an afternoon and read it in one go because it’s a book that needs your attention, but for me it just wasn’t one I could curl up and read in bed which made the reading experience of this quite jolting and an uphill struggle. It’s a book you have to completely get immersed in and I feel bad I couldn’t give it that. I feel if I did I would have rated it completely differently.

As I have said though, this book is a masterpiece and one I will read again in the future, maybe in one sitting on a rainy afternoon while wrapped in a blanket. I’m no literary critic, and there are plenty of reviews on goodreads which take this book apart and really analyse it and do it justice and that’s just something I’m not going to be able to do.

So, this book is incredible and if you have patience and time to completely immerse yourself in a book, if you want a book which will really challenge you and make you think about humanity… this is the book. I don’t think you would be at any disadvantage to pick this up over The Vegetarian as a first book by Kang, all I know is I will definitely be picking up anything she writes in the future – and I hope they keep the pairing of her and Deborah Smith.

Review: The Vegetarian – Han Kang

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My Rating – 4* 

This is a book which came on to my radar quite a while ago, eventually I got around to it and boy am I glad I did. The Vegetarian is an incredibly powerful book; focusing on a young woman who takes it upon herself to eat a plant-based diet in a country where that just is not the done thing. I was curious about this book, I’m a vegetarian myself (and considering the possibility of becoming vegan) and as this is a very different cultural look at plant-based diets I approached it with what I can only call a morbid curiosity. Not only that, but I’d never read a book by a South Korean author and I really love to branch out across the world with my reading! What surprised me most is this is more than a book about a woman who  becomes a vegetarian; it’s an insight in to society in South Korea, and also a tentative narrative about mental illness.

Yeong-hye, our protagonist, after having a vivid dream decides that she is to be a vegetarian – or rather a vegan; upon waking in the middle of the night she goes to the kitchen and rids the house of meat. This is much to her husbands dismay and anger, who says “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.“. We follow this experience of Yeong-hye’s decent in to veganism (as she rids her life of animal based products as well as meat) through the eyes of three members of her family; her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Each of these narrators gets around 60 pages to tell their part of the story. Their sections don’t really overlap, they don’t really have much in common, the only common factor is Yeong-hye. It was a little jumpy in parts, and I wish there was more from Yeong-hye herself but I sort of liked the peripheral look we got at her throughout.

Now, this book is not for the faint of heart – it is frankly quite brutal in places. There is moments of force feeding, there is sexual assault, and I would also say that it could be quite triggering to people with any eating disorder. But that brutality? It really made this book stand out, and I think it will stick with me for that.

I gave this 4* because it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I loved this book, I loved the premise, I loved the decent from the slightly odd to the out-right bizarre, I loved the journey it took me on. I just don’t feel it quite lived up to what I had imagined it to be in my head. I wish this were more of a social look at one woman and her plant-based diet in South Korea and less of a family drama. But really, that’s my only criticism. The prose was absolutely beautiful, and while a lot of that is down to the translator (Deborah Smith), there is no denying that this woman can write! I will definitely be checking out her other novel (Human Acts) at some point in the future.

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