Earthlings by Sayaka Murata was not at all what I expected

Earthlings is the second book that I’ve read by Sayaka Murata. I wrote a post a little while ago about the first one – Convenience Store Woman – and I liked it quite a bit.

I went into Earthlings feeling familiar with her style, and to a certain extent her view on life. The concept of the book based on the blurb seemed to fit – she has a tendency to explore the impacts of people who live a life that goes against the grain of society, or those who seek one. It’s a fascinating and relevant concept. Normative changes shift on a regular basis and are far more malleable and fluid than they used to be. Her books fit very well in modern fiction.

Having read both Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman now I think my initial impression is still somewhat accurate, but the overall approach and resolution of the books are fundamentally different despite the shared perspective.

Full disclosure – I’m going to make a thousand references and comparisons to Convenience Store Woman in this post when talking about Earthlings. Firstly, because it is my first experience with Murata as a writer, and secondly, it is probably the first book of hers that most people will read. It feels somewhat relevant. My apologies if this is a distraction!

Earthlings quickly distinguishes itself from Convenience Store Woman by ushering in harrowing and damaging events for Earthling’s protagonist Natsuki in the opening chapters of the book. It’s unmistakably Sayaka Murata’s style, but the way that she develops the plot and her main characters this time around is a significant divergence for anyone coming into Earthlings after reading Convenience Store Woman. Earthlings is charged with layers of trauma. I think the impact for me as a reader ended up being even more significant due to the unavoidable contrast between Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Natsuki from Earthlings. Keiko glides through her book mildly baffled by the expectations and pressures of others where as Natsuki feels everything. The book feels raw and disturbing as a result, opposed to the darkly comedic and almost absurdist atmosphere of Convenience Store Woman.

Themes like relationships, sexuality, and gender politics are explored and questioned by Murata. The querying and critical nature of normative behaviour is a significant trait of Murata’s approach. There is a heavy and pervading presence of societal and familial pressure to conform to traditional paths in career, marriage and children. The way that Earthlings deals with these expectations is unique and dramatic.

Earthlings follows the life of the aforementioned Natsuki and her beloved cousin Yuu. Natsuki and Yuu have always felt themselves to be different. They imagine themselves as divergent beings that are fundamentally different from their family. They are aliens and magicians. They deal with the alienation and cruelty of the people in their lives by imagining themselves to be something or someone apart from their surroundings.

The book introduces them as children and then again as adults. The quirky and offbeat feel that one might expect of Murata is present in this book, but what I didn’t expect was the level of trauma that the characters were going to endure. Earthlings delves into some horrific and devastating crimes like rape, incest, child abuse, neglect and murder. It was not an easy read. You would not expect this based on the jacket blurb.

Natsuki seeks to reconcile her traumatic past with her adult life and find the freedom and expiation she has desperately needed since she was a child. The damage that she sustains from an early age leads her to find unique ways to deal with it. Unfortunately her escape into imagination and otherness prevents her from facing the reality of what happened to her until well into adulthood – she recedes into the protective confines of her imagination so that she can continue to live. She builds psychological walls to protect herself and when she is young they are a heartbreaking necessity.

As an adult she has precious few good memories of her childhood but she remembers her cousin Yuu and the time that they spent together at their Grandmother’s expansive house in the mountains during summers fondly – these holidays represented the brief and fleeting escapes from the abuses and neglect of her parents. The home in the mountains is lodestone of sorts that tethers both Natsuki and Yuu to the past.

Earthlings represents an expansion of Murata’s social commentary on the notions of things like work, career expectations, relationships, marriage, and children. The external pressure of other peoples expectations is stifling and pervasive. The familial expectations of Natsuki’s family and that of her husband leave very little room for fluidity or individuality.

Natsuki and her husband live together in an asexual relationship and have no physical intimacy, nor do they have any interest in it. They enjoy a supportive and friendly relationship but keep a distance. They’re both marooned in a way – the relationship isn’t one of love, it is much more like an allied front, a covenant, against the expectations of their family. Their relationship became a layer of protection that allowed them to enjoy a certain level of freedom to live how they wish. It doesn’t solve all of the or problems, or prevent the shifting goal posts of perceived life milestones, but it makes things more bearable.

The book is a journey for them in dealing with these expectations while simultaneously coming to terms with significant emotional trauma. They seek a path that enables them to be true to themselves and to be happy. They seek an escape from the ‘factory’ that they believe embodies adult life and the book is basically about how they seek to go about doing that.

Earthlings is a seriously heavy book and I honestly found myself a bit shellshocked after reading it. What sounded like an offbeat and quirky novel ended up dealing with abuse, rape, murder and cannibalism. Yeah, there is cannibalism too. I expected none of this going into it and it will be no less shocking should you read it knowing this yourself. I’ve just prepared you. There are sections of the book that are utterly horrifying and heartbreaking. It is really difficult to read at times. It’s not all darkness, however, as there are moments of surprising humour, warmth and hope despite all of this.

I’m not sure how I can meaningfully describe the latter parts of the book without spoiling anything but suffice to say that Natsuki’s journey to find a place to belong does not end up where you’d ever expect. I’ve really just given you the bones – there is a lot to it. It’s a worth while read but it is not for the faint hearted.