Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata [review] – a discussion about autism representation

I’m always apprehensive going into books with autism rep.

As an autistic person, I’m especially aware and critical of autism representation in books. It turns out, I didn’t need to be worried about Convenience Store Woman – the autism rep is pretty great. What I did need to be worried about is other people’s reviews talking about autism …

The first half of this blog post will hold my review for Convenience Store Woman, but in the second half, I will talk more generally about autism representation in books and some *cough* ignorant reactions to Convenience Store Woman.


Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata

Goodreads

Keiko Furukura is an autistic woman who knows the importance of appearing “normal”. She finds comfort in routine and at 36, she is still in the same job she had at 18 and has never had a boyfriend. But she is made aware that these facts do not live up to society’s expectations and so she seeks to adjust her choices to satisfy her friends and family.


The Good Stuff

This story is a guidebook to autistic masking. We see in depth how Keiko moderates her speech, actions and choices to appear palatable to neurotypical people. She copies phrases and speech patterns, she has an ingenious system to mimic fashion choices, she makes astute observations about the world around her and adjusts her behaviour accordingly.

As an autistic person, it was so refreshing to read Keiko’s perspective. Her thought patterns, observations and choices made so much sense to me and I could really see myself in the story in ways I can’t usually.

The convenience store culture of Japan was also a great feature of the story. The descriptions of the store were vivid and the comfort Keiko took from the ordered, artificial environment was so apparent in the book, I couldn’t help but also feel comforted by the setting.

The Not-So-Good Stuff

I found the plot a little slow. There isn’t a lot that happens in the story because it is so focused on Keiko’s internal environment. Had the book been much longer, I would have perhaps found the slow plot frustrating, but for such a short story, I was happy to focus completely on Keiko’s character.

The author never explicitly acknowledges Keiko as autistic, either in the work or in interviews, which I feel is a missed opportunity. Keiko’s autism is apparent for those in the know, so I would still class it as representation, but it’s a shame that it isn’t clearly described.

Autism representation & people being fricking rude

One comment that cropped up in other people’s reviews time and time again was the idea of readers not being able to relate to Keiko. And I’m like “well, dur!”

It really isn’t surprising to me that neurotypical people struggle to relate to an autistic character when I, an autistic person, struggle to relate to and understand neurotypicals all the time.

You can still enjoy a story without “relating” to the characters, but many reviewers went further than simply stating that they couldn’t understand Keiko’s character. Goodreads features reader reviews that describe Keiko as “detached and unemotional”, “robotic and passive” and “mentally impaired – possibly autistic”.

A review on the New Yorker uses the words “depraved”, “monstrous” and “creepiness” to described Keiko and her actions, while the Guardian chooses “psychopathic” and “chilling”.

These comments and word choices are, at best, inconsiderate and insensitive, and at worst, just plain offensive. Although they are describing a fictional character, the aspects of the character that they are talking about are very real and relatable for autistic people. These comments reflect people’s actual opinions about the autistic experience.


Then I read, well, the other reviews, and I felt the sick gut-punch of how people actually often see me and other autistic people.

Marianne Eloise in her review for i-D

And that’s pretty depressing and upsetting to think about as an autistic person, but these types of comments highlight the need for a variety of good autistic representation. The more autistic voices people hear through media, the more they will understand aspects of the autistic experience and be able to correctly interpret autistic actions and thoughts, instead of just labelling them as “robotic” or “depraved”.

What will really help is for authors, producers, creators and reviewers to actually use the a-word. It’s not a slur (if used correctly) and it’s not taboo. The more we talk about autism and acknowledge autistic characters, the faster we can remove the stigma around it.

Summary

★★★★☆

Convenience Store Woman is a fantastic view into one autistic woman’s experience and offers a great presentation of autistic masking. The plot is entirely character-driven, which makes the story quite slow-moving, but the main character is so interesting, endearing and relatable (for me) that this book is enjoyable all the same.

I would also recommend:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by
gail honeyman

Goodreads
Autism rep, charming yet awkward, refreshing

An emotional and hilarious story about an autistic woman whose carefully structured life is shaken when she enters a new friendship.

Have you read Convenience Store Woman?

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