Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) bears some resemblance to her earlier Convenience Store Woman: its narrator, Natsuki, feels different even as a child, and rejects the idea of ‘fitting in’ as she grows older. However, her sense of alienation takes on a far more literal meaning. At a young age she comes to believe that her favourite soft toy is from another planet:

“Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from the planet Popinpopobia.”

Soon this is linked in her mind with the only other important relationship in her life, with her cousin Yuu, whom she sees every year when the extended family meet at Akishina. Yuu tells her:

“Every time I come here for Oban, I’m always secretly looking for the spaceship that will come and take me home.”

Both children are treated badly within their families. “That child is hopeless,” Natsuki’s mother tells everyone, “She can’t do anything properly.” Yuu’s mother is equally cruel, as he explains to Natsuki:

“Mitsuko’s a bit crazy, and when she gets angry she always says she’ll throw me out of the house.”

It’s not difficult to see why both children might retreat into a world of imagination, and why they might promise to marry when they are older. Natsuki’s alienation is further exacerbated when she is abused by a teacher, Mr Igasaki:

“His hand came up inside the hem of my shirt and rubbed my back directly on my skin.”

Her mother is, of course, dismissive of Natsuki’s attempts to tell her of her fears – “I can’t believe you’re making out your teacher’s a pervert just because he told you off.” (In fact, even when she tells her sister and a friend when she is older they attempt to place the blame with her). The abuse escalates to fellatio, Murata highlighting Natsuki’s distress when she tells Yuu “my mouth was destroyed recently.” It is this, and the fact that her family are intending to holiday elsewhere, which compels Natsuki to ask Yuu to have sex with her even though they are still children:

“Before my body stops being mine, I really want to be physically married to you too.”

The parents’ reaction to discovering them together is placed in direct contrast to their refusal to believe Natsuki’s claims about her teacher. From that point on, Natsuki lives almost as a prisoner (“Even after I went to college and got a job, I was not allowed to leave home”) but she is still allowed ‘extra lessons’. It is at this point that the novel takes the first of a number of strange turns as Natsuki follows Piyyut’s instructions and goes to Mr Igasaki’s house one night:

“Hurry. Hurry! If the Wicked Witch kills you, it’ll bring about the end of the world. Only your magical powers can prevent that.”

As with Convenience Store Women, Earthlings explores the idea of what it is to be normal in a society where conformity is very important. As Natsuki sees it, “I was still expected to become a component for the Factory.” Increasingly she feels that she too must be an alien:

“So all I can do is keep my head down and pretend to live as an Earthling.”

To this end she enters into a marriage of convenience; her and her husband, Tomoya, live largely separate lives, but by being married they appease their families and friends. Like Natsuki, Tomoya has an aversion to sex. In fact he goes further and says:

“Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotised into thinking they’re great.”

When Tomoya loses his job, he asks that they go to Akishina – Natsuki has told him about her holidays there as a child – where Yuu is now living. Though Yuu, too, has found it difficult to settle into adult life, he tells Natsuki, “As an adult you have to squarely face up to problems.” No amount of persuasion, however, will convince Natsuki and Tomoya that they are wrong.

What makes Earthlings such a powerful and genuinely unsettling novels is the way it takes its premise – Natsuki’s premise – to its uncompromising conclusion. Her position is extreme but also plausible: life as a Factory with people nothing more than parts. It also accurately highlights the hypocrisy of what is accepted and what is condemned: Natsuki’s sexual abuse is ignored but her failure to become pregnant is seen as a fault. Readers generally sympathise with society’s rebels and, by the novel’s end we have been inside Natsuki’s head for so long – and we have so many reasons to sympathise with her – that it is difficult for the reader not to feel complicit. Despite this, it is unlikely anything will prepare you for the final chapters. While Convenience Store Woman may be a ‘better’ novel, Earthlings is, in many ways, a more effective one.

Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Earthlings”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    How interesting! I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this book (particularly in recent weeks), without really knowing anything about its content or themes. So, it’s very useful to see your perspective on it. The question of what it is to be normal in a convectional/conservative society is such an great area to explore through fiction, and it sounds as if this novel pushes that concept into new and unsettling territory. I’m definitely intrigued!

  2. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] in terms of its subject matter and construction. Personally, I would love to see Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori) included simply on the basis that it would treat any new readers it […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: