Book Review – Two Japanese Novels
September 20, 2021
Women carrying Olympic torch


When the Olympics fever began to rise, despite the new normal of our lives that is being held hostage by the rise and fall of Covid-19 cases, I turned towards books about Japan or by Japanese authors. To be perfectly honest, I have been gravitating towards writing Japanese writing since a visit to Japan in 2018 (seems to be in another universe a long long time ago).

Sharing my opinions on two books with very different stories consumed in two different formats.

Convenience Store Woman 

Genre: Fiction

Author: Sayaka Murata

Translated into English by:Ginny Tapley Takemori 

Format: Audiobook

Audio narration by: Nancy Wu 

I typically plug in my earphones while going on solitary walks. In case you’re wondering, family walks are reserved for conversation (check with anyone who has teenage children). This fast-paced read was completed in exactly 3 long walks!!

The protagonist, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura has spent half her life working at the exact same location in a convenience store that from the day it opened. Her consistency and devotion to her job seemed misplaced, until you get to know her better.

With her awkward social skills, and having always had difficulty understanding the capricious nature of humans including her caring family members, Keiko finds the unchanging monotony of her work life as a convenience store worker reassuring. Being extremely competent at her job makes her feel like a useful cog in the wheel of society, a place that she doesn’t fully comprehend.

Even when she leaves the store each day, she finds herself thinking about it. With practically all of her waking hours spent at the store where she buys all her meals and has most of her social interactions, she is part of and a product of the store.

She meets another socially awkward man who works for a while at the store who is almost as weird as her but not dedicated to being an exemplary employee like her. The strange terms of their cohabitation lead to unexpected interactions with their family members, further reinforcing stereotypes and how we interpret the world through our social conditioning.

Till the end I could not really figure out how I felt about the protagonist and couldn’t see where the story was headed. Although Keiko’s behavior was bewildering, it showed me a different side of human nature as well as the daily monotony of jobs in the retail sector that I don’t pay much attention to as a customer.

My opinion: It’s a quick read, though not a very satisfying ending to an unusual story.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold – Tales From The Cafe 

Genre: Fiction

Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translated to English by: Geoffrey Trousselot 

Format: Print book

When I discovered that one of my favorite reads of 2020, a book based in a small cafe in Tokyo had a sequel, I eagerly picked up the print copy from the Singapore library system.  Before The Coffee Gets Cold – Tales From The Cafe, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot, returns to the same tiny cafe, Funiculi Funicula that has a special superpower. If you wish, you can go back to the past. You have to follow several rules, including accepting the fact that you can’t change the present by your time travel excursion. 

This book features four interlinked stories that weave around the cafe owner Nagare, whose spunky little daughter is eager to do her part, Kazu, the reticent waitress whose reason for her devotion to her work is revealed through the tales along with a host of regulars who frequent the cafe and the special ones who choose to travel back in time for reasons of the heart.

The primary question that every curious cafe visitor (and reader) must answer is –

If you could go back, who would you want to meet? 

Not being a fan of such ‘big’ questions, I was skeptical when I read the first book. But despite my reservations, I was drawn into the lives of the strangers who arrive at the cafe with a plan or a wish to connect with people who have left them with unanswered questions.

The first book had four stories as well and covered a variety of human emotions – love, guilt, responsibility as does this sequel. Love comes in many forms and many relationships. Yet, the universality of the experience shines through a setting that is uniquely Japanese.

Not all stories have happy endings, but despite our tragedies, big and small, our responsibility to life itself, is to seek happiness. 

My opinion: Transport yourself into this quaint cafe and immerse yourself into an exotic present and an unknown past.

What have you been reading lately?

Photo credit: Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

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