Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published by Granta, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Though it is concerned with the same core concept of individuals who reject the roles set out for them by society, Earthlings is a far bolder and more twisted affair than the author’s previous hit, Convenience Store Woman. Frankly, I think it’s all the better for it. While the latter ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed, love it or loathe it, I can’t see how Earthlings could fail to elicit a strong response from any reader.
We follow Natsuki. She struggles to fit in as a child and believes she may be a witch, appearing to call upon her vivid imagination as a means of escape from trauma and abuse. She forms a powerful, intimate relationship with her cousin, Yuu, the two agreeing that perhaps they’re not originally from Earth at all. Shocking events tear the two apart for more than 20 years, by which time Natsuki has entered an asexual marriage of convenience to appease her family. But a reunion with Yuu reignites her desire to find a way of escaping the trappings of what she calls “The Factory”; the rigid, gendered roles set out for us all by society, with its particular emphasis on procreation – the idea of which repulses her. Natsuki, her husband, and Yuu will go to extreme lengths to make this happen.
I love the way the book toes the line when it comes to its flirtation with magical realism. It becomes a powerful way to explore the notion of storytelling as a method of self-protection; a theme which I adore. It also makes Natsuki a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Alongside this, the book is primarily concerned with the concept of freewill and whether it’s truly possible to live with no sense of community, and perhaps even without our own humanity.
The latter portion of the book descends into full-tilt madness. Rather than the characters gradually removing themselves from society and degrading slowly, the switch happens incredibly quickly, making it pretty hard to believe. The point the book is trying to make also becomes less clear as a result. Shocking and haunting though the final chapter is, the characters we had previously been rooting for to escape and achieve true autonomy over their lives become so irredeemable that life out with “The Factory” seems even less appealing than life inside it. Perhaps it was her intention to imply that outsiders are doomed regardless of whether they concede or resist, and this theme is certainly valid and worth exploring, but the execution and the stance she’s approaching it from feel uneven when the book is examined as a whole.
Still, this novel will certainly stay with me. Provocative and compelling in equal measure, I raced through it and found myself in something of a daze by the time I reached the end. If you’re drawn to the theme of society versus the individual and have a strong stomach, it’s certainly worth taking a chance on it.