Review: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Length: 256 pages

Publication: October 1st 2020 by Granta Books

Source: Library

What it’s about:

Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. She has a wand and a transformation mirror. She might be a witch, or an alien from another planet. Together with her cousin Yuu, Natsuki spends her summers in the wild mountains of Nagano, dreaming of other worlds. When a terrible sequence of events threatens to part the two children forever, they make a promise: survive, no matter what.

Now Natsuki is grown. She lives a quiet life with her asexual husband, surviving as best she can by pretending to be normal. But the demands of Natsuki’s family are increasing, her friends wonder why she’s still not pregnant, and dark shadows from Natsuki’s childhood are pursuing her. Fleeing the suburbs for the mountains of her childhood, Natsuki prepares herself with a reunion with Yuu. Will he still remember their promise? And will he help her keep it?

What I thought:

I read Murata’s cult novel Convenience Store Woman on the recommendation of another book blogger whose picks are usually spot on for me. It was a short, quick read (more of a novella), and when I finished it I’m pretty sure I spent a good fifteen minutes just sitting with the book in my hand, thinking “WTF?” To say Murata’s writing is quirky would be to dismiss it too easily; yes, her characters are unique and her plot choices unusual.The world she portrays almost feels like real life until you realize you are seeing it through the lens of someone who is completely on the outside of mainstream society.

Her characters don’t fit into traditional roles, and as such they each reject those roles and instead reframe their self-identity in a way that makes sense to them. In both Convenience Store Woman and Earthings, the main characters only manage to function in society to the extent that they can pretend to be someone else, in the case of Keiko by studying and copying the speech patterns and mannerisms of others, and in the case of Natsuki by submitting to the abuse of her family and others. When these characters stop pretending is when things really start to go off the rails.

Earthlings had many similar themes to Murata’s previous novel, but it pushes those themes and the boundaries of what is comfortable for a reader even further. The last third of the book, when Natsuki stops playing a role and allows herself to become what she truly believe she is – an alien to society – is shocking and at times stomach-churning. Trigger warning: there are scenes of child sexual abuse and graphic violence.

Despite the challenging content, Murata’s novels have both stayed with me and made me think a lot. Convenience Store Woman may be a good place to start if you are interested in reading something by her but leery of the graphic content, but Earthlings is definitely worth reading as well in that it shows how she has progressed as a writer as she explores these themes. I am not an expert on Japanese culture by any means, but to me these modern novels feel like a direct rebuke of the importance placed on traditional roles in Japanese society. Recommended.

About the author:
Sayaka Murata (in Japanese, 村田 沙耶香) is one of the most exciting up-and-coming writers in Japan today. She herself still works part time in a convenience store, which gave her the inspiration to write Convenience Store Woman (Conbini Ningen). She debuted in 2003 with Junyu (Breastfeeding), which won the Gunzo Prize for new writers. In 2009 she won the Noma Prize for New Writers with Gin iro no uta (Silver Song), and in 2013 the Mishima Yukio Prize for Shiro-oro no machi no, sono hone no taion no (Of Bones, of Body Heat, of Whitening City). Convenience Store Woman won the 2016 Akutagawa Award. Murata has two short stories published in English (both translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): “Lover on the Breeze” (Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake, Waseda Bungaku, 2011) and “A Clean Marriage” (Granta 127: Japan, 2014). 

2 thoughts on “Review: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

    1. Too Fond Post author

      I would say yes, though in a different way. She doesn’t use symbolism in the same way Murakami does–the strangeness is more in the way the characters understand their world rather than the world itself being strange. You really get into the mind of her characters and see the world through their eyes.

      Reply

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