This was an odd, but interesting and entertaining story. The author sells well in Japan apparently, and has several titles published there. This is her first English translation.
The novella is about a Japanese woman, Keiko Furukura, who is in her mid-thirties and who seems to the rest of the world to be stagnating. She is neither in a successful career, nor is she married with children which seem to be the only two viable options available to Japanese women, reading between the lines here.
in fact, Keiko has some sort of deficit disorder in that she doesn't see life like her peers do. For example, when she was in middle school and two boys were fighting, and other girls were urging them to stop it to no avail, Keiko's solution was to grab a nearby shovel and hit one of them on the head with it, which expediently stopped the fight at once. Problem solved.
She couldn't understand why she got into trouble for this any more than she can grasp why it's not acceptable to stick something sharp into a baby to shock it into stopping its endless wailing. Fortunately, she has learned that her solution would be socially unacceptable, and doesn't attempt it, even though the offending baby is her nephew, the son of her younger sister Mami. Keiko has learned that by watching how her peers deal with situations and then emulating them, even though the emulation itself makes no sense to her, she can get by. Mami, realizing Keiko has a problem, helps her with this.
This emulation even extends to copying their mannerisms, clothing choices, and speech inflections, although she's careful not to emulate her peers too precisely. Instead, she imbibes each of their essences, and regurgitates a meld of that as her own style. Keiko is like a robot who is given an AI learning program. In this way she's able to hold down a long-term job at a convenience store named Smile Mart which always seems to be pushing special offers.
The store is actually the perfect environment for Keiko, because it's highly-structured and the daily routine follows a specific set of simple rules. In such circumstances, she flourishes and becomes the store's most reliable and efficient employee. In this way she reminds me of Jeff Daniels's character Bill Johnson in the excellent movie Pleasantville, although she doesn't become anywhere near as lost as he does when routine changes. She feels completely at home in the Smile Mart, more so than anywhere else, and she volunteers for extra shifts because given a choice, that's where she'd rather be. Over the years she sees eight managers come and go, and many more of the staff. Those managers have all seemed to revere her as a stellar and exemplary employee.
This all starts to unravel with the arrival of a completely disaffected, rude, self-absorbed, and frankly gross employee by the name of Shiraha. He is fired, but when Keiko meets him lurking around the store because of his unrequited interest in another female employee, she starts to bond with him. He has no interest in her and she has never been interested in romance or sex, but he moves into her apartment and in that way she can assure her family that she has a boyfriend even though he is, in her own words, really like a stray pet that she took in, and feeds. This nevertheless brings big changes to her life.
I enjoyed this. It is a fast read: even though it's around 160 pages, the book is a very small format. Had it been a regularly-sized print book, it would have probably been less than ninety pages and looking quite skimpy, so it felt rather dishonest that the publisher had made an attempt to 'bulk it up' like this. Despite that, I commend it as a worthy read and may well come back to this author at some point in the future to sample more of her work (assuming more is translated because my Japanese is non-existent, sad to say!).