Book Review – Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I finished this book fairly late on Friday night so was feeling pretty smug that I wouldn’t have to rush to get anything finished today. I was going to have a relaxed day and try to get ahead with my next read. Did I? No chance. So, I’m hoping that I can get this written in super quick time and get a fair chunk done before bed. Will I? Well, considering I’m still get my head around my latest read, it doesn’t bode well. I was really looking forward to reading this one because I’d really enjoyed Convenience Store Woman. Although, I know that it’s an incredibly divisive novel. One of my friends absolutely hated it when she read it and I get it. It was the weird story of an outsider trying to find away to fit it. There wasn’t a great deal of plot and it did cross the quirky line quite dramatically. I assumed that Earthlings would also fall into this divisive realm of literature.

In her last novel, Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata tells the story of a neurodivergent young woman who finds comfort in her repetitive and dull job. She finds that the many rules and guidelines that she is expected to follow help her pass for “normal”. It rightly became an international bestseller and meant that her follow-up novel ended up with an awful lot of buzz around it. From the outside, it seems as though Murata hasn’t stepped too far away from her previous work. Once again, she is telling the story of a detached young woman. An outsider who observes the world around her in a very different way to the rest of her family. She cannot understand society’s obsession with getting married and having children. She can’t make sense of the rules of human existence but must find her own way to get by.

However, this is not a case of history repeating itself. Earthlings has many similarities with Convenience Store Woman but it is far from being the same charming and slightly sweet read. For her next novel, Murata has amped up the trauma to explore the coping mechanisms that people employ to survive. Our narrator is Natsuki who we first meet as a child. It’s not a happy childhood either. Natsuki is emotionally and physically abused during her childhood, and it has arrested her mental development. To cope with the trauma, she has become emotionally frozen in her childhood. The stories she once told herself about her toy hedgehog being an alien who gave her magical powers have only amplified. The young woman now believes that she is an alien too. However, with no hope of getting home, Natsuki realises that she must eventually submit to the human way of life.

Natsuki sees the world around her as nothing more than a baby-making factory. She understands that she is seen as only a tool that is necessary for allowing the human race to continue. Though she does not agree with it, Natsuki hopes that she will one day be brainwashed into following the example of those around her. For now, she has found some security in hr asexual marriage to a fellow neurodivergent individual. Having found each other online, the pair lead separate lives and have little contact with each other. Yet, it is enough to keep the factory off their backs for now. Although, the pressure to produce offspring increases with every passing year. While Natsuki is waiting until she is assimilated, her husband is set to put up more of a fight.

This is definitely not the book that I expected when I started reading. Yes, Natsuki is as compelling a narrator as we saw in Murata’s last work but the change of tone is stark. This book has many disturbing qualities and definitely won’t be something that everyone will enjoy. With hints of mental abuse throughout and one instance of sexual abuse, it could definitely be a trigger for certain readers. However, despite all of the unpleasantness on show, this is a surprisingly enjoyable reading experience. I found myself drawn to this book and was always desperate to get back into it. The characters are vivid and there are some weirdly funny moments. Murata is a fantastic writer and finds astounding ways to portray the young girl’s trauma. When Natsuki is a girl, she describes an out-of-body that is uncomfortable and heartbreaking.

However, some elements don’t work quite as well. Some of the characters are quite as fleshed out as they deserve to be. Some of the supporting characters, most obviously in the later chapters her husband, aren’t as convincingly realistic. As the novel goes on, parts of the premise start to fall apart and it all moves towards a grand finale that doesn’t quite work. There are interesting ideas at play here but the author seems to lose her grip of the final quarter of the narrative. Something that isn’t helped by a faster pace and chaotic narration. It’s not that this book is much worse than its predecessor but some aspects don’t quite match up. Murata tried to do something original and exciting here. For the most part, it worked well. It’s just a few details that leave it trailing behind Convenience Store Woman.

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