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.

The Memory Police – By Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police is an interesting book. After reading it through, I think it can be summed up in one word – mournful. 

This is a book about loss. It’s a dystopian novel on a nameless island, at an indeterminate time. The world building and setting is intentionally vague.There is a dreamlike and haunting quality to it where nothing is firmly set and things could shift at the slightest touch.

I was drawn to this book by comparisons that I’d read online that likened the book to a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and a Haruki Murakami novel. I love dystopian novels, 1984, and adore Murakami so that comparison sent this to the top of my to read list. Given that this was a common contrast made by those who read the book I had pretty high expectations going in. Having finished it now, I’d agree that it does match this comparison, but not unilaterally – there are some concessions to be made. 

I think where Ogawa’s book begins to share traits with Murakami’s style is in the strangeness of the book. As the plot evolves there are moments that brought to mind Murakami stories where things diverge from the beautiful mundanity of his primary worlds and begin to descend into the surreal and strange. The comparisons to Murakami are more apt in that regard, as The Memory Police felt more firmly rooted in the strange than the mundane. 

For all of its light and vague qualities however, the dystopian aspects are quietly horrifying – this is a harrowing book and the haunting nature of it brings with it a hopelessness that I wasn’t expecting. Hopelessness, horror and harrowing events are part and parcel for a dystopian novel but they’re usually a sledgehammer – there is a message, a cautionary tale, and it is hammered home with brutality. The Memory Police is different. It’s a poisoned needle on a silk pillow. There is a real delicacy to the book that was of profound importance in not only distinguishing it from other dystopian novels, but also to the overall success of the story. 

To elaborate on that point, the plot surrounds memory (obviously), the presence of it but also the absence of it. The titular Memory Police are a shadowy organisation that appear to rule all inhabitants of the ‘Island’ and are responsible for overseeing the people living there, but more significantly, they’re the ones who enforce the disappearances. Nothing can be taken for granted in this world because the memory of something could simply disappear one day, taking with it all concern or recollection of it. When something that has been forgotten is not willingly surrendered and disposed of by the residents, they will step in to ensure that it is removed. Once something has been forgotten it simply ceases to register to the people living there, even if it rests in their hands. 

The real mystery of the book is the nature of memory and the purpose or design behind the progressive selection of things that vanish from memory. There is no way for most to know how much they’ve lost, just as they fail to recall an object, concept or its purpose once it is gone. The delirium in these moments deepens the dreamlike quality. There is a unique and keen hopelessness when one cannot comprehend what has been lost, while continuing to lose things. They are helpless to stop it. It’s a terrifying prospect and an insidious exercise in control. These voids leave a deep emptiness for the reader. You’re left to mourn the losses of the people, even as they forget and move on. Yoko Ogawa toys with the notion of how much one can lose while still remaining yourself – how would you even know that you’ve changed.

Most of what we are is memory. The totality of ones life and experience is deeply rooted in memory, in your own and that of others. It is vital to our sense of self.The concepts that Yoko Ogawa plays with here are truly haunting. There is a very good reason why dystopian novels often explore concepts like identity, individualism, freedom, and self determination. The loss of that sort of autonomy, the loss of what is irreducibly and uniquely you, is intolerable. The fact that this book is as beautiful and sad as it is, is a testament to that. 

It is a light and dreamlike read that is equally haunting, vague, and strange. If you enjoyed books like Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, you will definitely enjoy this. I highly recommend it, but make sure you have something cheery to read as a follow up – you’ll probably need it. 

Pandemic Page-turners: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami after reading Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I loved that book and, as a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, I was already sold on the wistful and melancholic sensibilities that flow from Japanese authors. I decided to dig into some current Japanese writers to broaden my perspective. Hiromi Kawakami did not disappoint.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a diaphanous, sweet and contemplative love story. It foregoes the surrealism of Murakami’s work and doesn’t have the nihilistic edge of Sayaka Murata’s books, but Kawakami has a delicacy and affection that provides her own distinction.

There is something magical about these writers. They are capable of infusing books with the bittersweet moment of parting. They possess a sense of yearning that is unique.

There are moments of loss, but these are contrasted by what is gained. The richness of an experience is that despite the pain you may endure one day when things change, it is worth it. That feeling is proof of significance. You can’t gain without loss – there is a price to be paid. To mourn the absence of something means that it was special. The presence of this philosophy in these books provides a strange sense of both pragmatism and romanticism.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is occupied with the personal transformation that takes place inside an interpersonal relationship. There is a balance between loneliness and isolation and company and companionship. I think this contrast is the key to one of the novel’s great successes. It’s firmly entrenched in the notion of loss and gain. The book is about a chance meeting rooted in the past and the profound effect that it has on two lives.

The book centres on Tsukiko and a random meeting with one of her teachers from primary school, referred to as Sensei. Despite the significant age gap between them, and his position as an old teacher of hers during her childhood, the two find themselves drawn together. They begin to bond through small similarities – tastes and appreciation of food and alcohol are significant, for example. The book weaves through small vignettes of their meetings and partings and the indelible marks each interaction leaves on them.

These fleeting moments are captured beautifully by Hiromi Kawakami. What begins as chance and casual encounters meanders into affection and then melds slowly into love. The book is short but the story is a memorable one. It shows just how fleeting and precious life is, how important it is to grasp onto the things that are important to you. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a book where you face this and the achingly melancholic truth that nothing lasts forever.

Pandemic Page-turners – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

If I could highlight one positive about living through a pandemic it’s that I’ve been able to catch up on some reading. I imagine that I’m not alone. I’m an existence perfectly attuned for lockdowns and isolation. Providing I have books.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to dust off the blog to write about some of the good stuff that I’ve been reading lately. If you’re stuck for things to read I hope this helps.

I’ve read two books by Sayaka Murata so far and Convenience Store Woman was my gateway. So it’ll be the first one I write about.

Sayaka Murata is a quirky author. I’ve not read anything quite like her books. Her characters are odd, they are different and they stand out. They have problems with society and they have a point.

One of the many interesting things about Convenience Store Woman is how relatable some of her grievances with society are. She is an artist when it comes to taking banal moments and twisting them to produce something dark and surreal. This holds true for her sophomore effort ‘Earthlings’ too, but Convenience Store Woman is where she mastered it.

Murata delves into conformity and socially normative behaviour, along with sexual and gender politics. She muses upon the moulds that adults are expected to fit. She questions them in ways that often render them absurd and confining. They are presented as a force that is exerted. There is a Japanese saying that aptly sums up the notion here – ‘the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down’. When a point is to be made about being different this saying will often be applied. Where someone is different or unusual, there will be resistance to it. This holds true for people anywhere. This book is a case of the nail resisting the hammer.

In the eponymous Convenience Store Woman Keiko Furukura’s case, the expectation as a woman in her thirties is to find a husband, leave her part time job and have children. This quiet and insidious pressure worms its way through Keiko’s story. Murata does a great job inverting things so that the ‘normal’ people’s interest in her life becomes grotesque and their prurient curiosity grates against Keiko’s utter lack of interest.

While weathering this pressure Keiko reflects on the refuge she found in working for a convenience store. This is the meat of the novel. The world inside the store makes sense to her. There is order. There are clear instructions on what she must do. She models her behaviour after the corporate training for employees when dealing with customers. She selectively mimics the behaviour and speech patterns of co-workers. This is how she navigates social situations that baffle her. She finds a sense of belonging after spending her early years adrift in a sea of social confusion. She is a part of the convenience store machine, and it soothes her.

She has learned through her family that to be herself would mean upsetting and confusing them, in the same way that their lives confuse her. She has a painfully pragmatic attitude – she understands herself just as she understands that the people around her do not.

The book charts Keiko’s personal revelations and growth while navigating the burdens of other people’s expectations. It is an entertaining ride. The book is a rallying cry for people that wish to live their lives on their own terms.

Convenience Store Woman is excellent debut. It is dark, funny, ironic and charming. It has a knack to get you thinking about how you relate to other people and why. Everybody should reflect on that sometimes.

Should you read Dawn of Wonder? Find out

Dawn of Wonder is the first book in a fantasy series by Jonathan Renshaw called The Wakening. The book follows Aedan, a precocious but damaged boy, in a coming of age story amidst a backdrop of strange events, political threats and turmoil.
It’s notable to mention that Dawn of Wonder is a self-published work. That is nothing new, but Dawn of Wonder belongs to a qualitative batch of polished and compelling books that have emerged in the past few years without the initial backing of a publisher. This is really exciting, as good stories deserve to be told, with or without the approval and support of a traditional publishing house.Read More »

You must read Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

I was incredibly excited to dive into this book. After the tremendous impact of A Head Full of Ghosts, it was an immense relief to know that I had another one of Paul Tremblay’s books up my sleeve. So, it was with extreme anticipation that I dived in to A Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and I was not disappointed. This book is every bit as complex, nuanced and emotional as A Head Full of Ghosts, and in some ways it pushes the boundaries even further. The ambiguity and unique readings of Ghosts is present here too; it’s becoming a signature, and one I relish the opportunity to experience. Paul Tremblay’s fascination with the parallels between the supernatural and psychosis make for thrilling reading.Read More »

You must read A Head Full of Ghosts

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is a book that I needed to read. I’ve seen it mentioned on my twitter feed for a while, and now I’m kicking myself because I’ve been deprived of one of the best novels that the horror genre has had to offer in years. You really should read this book too. Read on and let me convince you.Read More »

You must read Stranded By Bracken MacLeod

Stranded by Bracken MacLeod (published by Tor Books) drew me in immediately. The book is complex, dark and unapologetically cryptic. The book is atmospheric, tense and mysterious in the tradition of some of the greats in horror fiction. This book will sneak up on you, twist you with dread and suspicion, and then fade away leaving you wondering if it’s truly gone or still out there in the darkness.Read More »

You must read the Ferryman Institute – Here’s why

The Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl, published by Gallery Books, is a delight to read. The cover and the blurb drew me in while I was browsing books, so I was expecting something interesting. It was Colin Gigl’s excellent plot, world building and characterisation that kept me reading, though. This book is fantastic. It is thoughtful, complex, frustrating and often hilarious. Gigl delivers on every promise the jacket blurb offers, but he enhances it, elevates it, and ascends the book with his strategic use of emotional highs and lows and an enviable control of conflict. This book, suffused with death, becomes more about the gift that life is; something that really resonated with me.Read More »

You must read The Fifth Season By N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, published by the ever awesome Orbit Books, won the Hugo award this year for best novel. Hype often repels me, I have been disappointed before, but the premise sounded great. So, with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, I bought a copy and waded in.

So, straight into it. My impression? This book is wonderful. It is beautifully written, with a vivid but light and accessible style. It is utterly unpretentious, and fiercely intelligent. Read More »