All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

on October 22, 2020

Earthlings 
Sayaca Murata (translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Granta
2020, 247p
Copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Mind-blowing, dark and wild, the new novel from Sayaka Murata – author of bestseller Convenience Store Woman – asks: how far would you go just to be yourself?

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?

Yikes, where to start with this.

Firstly (and I don’t often do this but I feel this book warrants it) – trigger/content warning for: child abuse, physical and mental abuse, child sex abuse, graphic content, horror, gore, cannibalism.

This book starts off simply enough – Natsuki is a young girl who spends each summer at the home of her grandparents deep in the mountains. She loves this time, she gets to see all her relatives, especially her cousins and her favourite cousin, Yuu. Natsuki and Yuu are quite close (bonding over a shared view that they are aliens who do not belong) and I think Natsuki’s desire to ‘marry’ Yuu reflects a longing to escape her life. Her mother is incredibly abusive towards Natsuki, both emotionally and physically. She’s very concerned with Natsuki’s sister’s fragile health and that child is given priority. Summer at the family house is Natsuki’s dream, she longs for it each year. There’s a lot happening to her, she’s also being preyed upon by a teacher at her school, which, when she tries to tell her mother, results in being beaten and screamed at for lying. I found that stuff really hard to read as it all takes place from Natsuki’s point of view and she’s very young, she doesn’t really understand what is happening. She comes up with this plan to basically take back her body but it ends badly when the adults discover it.

The book skips forward then, to when Natsuki is now 34 and married in a marriage of convenience. It’s all to maintain appearances, to be part of what Natsuki calls ‘the Factory’ – where you are born, you grow up and get married, have a child or children to contribute and then the cycle repeats all over again. Anyone who doesn’t conform is questioned relentlessly and Natsuki experiences this to a degree as she and her husband are yet to produce a child for ‘the Factory’.

It’s during this section when things take…..a bit of a turn. There’s some earlier magical realism, where Natsuki has a small hedgehog toy as a child that she believes is from a different planet, which actually seems to be a coping mechanism for her life as this ostracised child who doesn’t feel she fits in or belongs. And I suppose a lot of what follows could be the result of the deep trauma she experienced during that childhood but let’s just say the book definitely goes places that I did not expect it to go. I’ve read Sayaka Murata’s first novel, Convenience Store Woman and I really enjoyed it. I only read it this year and I see similarities between that book and this one: both have main characters in their thirties who do not really conform to the expected views of society. Both are in marriages of a convenience. There’s a lot about the ‘system’ in Japan and how women’s bodies aren’t really their own and how they are all cogs in a machine to drive society forward, to keep things moving.

This book gets dark, very dark. There was a lot of content that I felt uncomfortable reading, because I don’t generally choose to read books of this type and it wasn’t something I expected, going in. It’s toward the end though, so I had already read most of the book so I finished it, so I’d find out what happened. A lot of the latter part of the book feels quite unhinged, referencing Natsuki’s mental state, as her and her companions further descend into this belief that they’re really aliens from another planet who are just inhabiting Earthly vessels and doing what Earthlings do.

I felt like this book started off really well. The feeling of ostracisation that Natsuki experienced within her own family, her desire to escape, even the toy hedgehog being from another planet, I could understand it as a child’s desire to believe in something better for themselves. The sexual abuse is disturbing (and I was concerned how dismissive everyone was of it) but I felt it gave Natsuki reasons for her desire to escape the life she was living. But the deeper I got, honestly, the less I enjoyed it. I found the ending really gratuitous and I’m not even entirely sure how much was real and how much might’ve been a mental psychosis induced fever dream. Maybe it was all real and all of them descended into madness together at the same rate as a result of the different traumas they experienced as children, as people who didn’t fit into neat boxes as adults. Maybe none of it was. I honestly don’t even know. Reading it as it was presented, I didn’t enjoy it.

4/10

Book #203 of 2020


2 responses to “Review: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I received an unsolicited copy of this but I think I’ll be skipping it,

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