Translated by: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Cover Art: Luke Bird & Emmanuel LATTES/Alamy
Book Depository: Paperback*
Content Warnings: Violence; disturbing thoughts
Keiko has struggled to fit in with the society around her from a young age, and now she is not your ‘average’ thirty six year old woman. She has never had a boyfriend nor does she desire one despite being criticised by the married women who claim to be her friends. Whilst the people around her vie for higher positions in their careers, Keiko is happy in her role as a convenience store worker and has been for eighteen years. She is happy with her life, so why won’t people leave her be? Why does she have to watch what she does and says, and put on a façade for the people who are supposed to love her unconditionally?
One of Keiko’s earliest memories is hitting one of her school peers in the head with a shovel to stop them fighting with another pupil. Later in the book we see Keiko consider hurting her sister’s baby, because they won’t stop crying. In both these situations, Keiko knows the violence only as the fastest route to ending the discomfort she is experiencing, even though she understands, from other people’s reactions, that it is wrong. The use of violence in such a blasé manner could be construed in various ways – it could have been an attempt to give the reader more insight into the way Keiko’s brain works and to highlight the differences between herself and the individuals around her. It also creates an us vs them vibe to the story, as people will inevitably judge the violence if they cannot understand how Keiko comes to the conclusions she does. This is an excellent piece of social commentary as the reader feels guilty for not understanding Keiko’s differences whilst simultaneously retaining the concept of violence being wrong.
The book is somewhat repetitive and mundane in nature, which should create a sense of boredom amongst readers, but somehow Murata commands reader attention. The commentary surrounding conformity and the way society behave as a collective rather than as a set of individuals, is palpable. The wit is scathing, and the author takes no prisoners as she describes the mundanity of married life. As readers we automatically think Keiko’s life must be the least rewarding because of her lack of social mobility, but in reality, her life, to her at least, is rich compared to her married friends’ lives which consist of waking up, feeding the baby, gossiping and repeat. The book is essentially an advocate for the saying ‘life is what you make it’.
Murata also explores different types of social pressures within the book. Keiko obviously receives pressure from outside sources to marry and settle down. However, one of the other women in her social group, Miki, has worked hard to build an excellent career for herself, but still feels the pressure to have children. This highlights a fundamental flaw in Japanese society – individualism has been stripped down and a formula for apparent success has been created. Anyone who doesn’t strictly fit or follow this formula is ostracised or judged and it’s extremely sad. Also, why should women have to bear children in order to feel worthy within society? This is a concept that has always baffled me, as I do not desire to have children myself.
The writing is pared back, which may be a problem for some readers, but I felt it suited the subject material well. It would be possible to describe this book as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it pretends to be a quiet, slow story with not much action, but underneath, it is flowing with commentary and opinions regarding Japan’s cultural differences. This is one I would definitely recommend if you are looking to read books that highlight Japanese societal values and culture.
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