New novel by the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata (author of the internationally acclaimed Convenience Store Woman) has just been translated into English. Earthlings is shocking, surprising, but also – which can be hard to admit at times – amusing and captivating. Although it will surely divide its readers.
It’s quide hard to write more about the plot without revealing its key elements, and these are definitely worth discovering on your own. Still, let me try.
The novel begins when young Natsuki, along with her parents and younger sister Kise, are racing down the winding mountain roads for a family reunion. A snapshot would show us a picture perfect family – but it won’t be long before these appearances completely dissipate. Natsuki is an introverted girl, isolated from the rest of her family. Her only confidant is the plush Piyyut (according to the owner, it is actually an alien from the planet Popinpobopia) and her cousin Yuu, with whom Natsuki meets just for a few days a year during these family reunions. Only to these two (Yuu and Piyyut) does Natsuki open up and share all of her innermost secrets. With each page the number of secrets to share will only grow.
We follow the shocking fate of Natsuki and Yuu, from childhood to adulthood. Like Keiko from The Convenience Store Woman, they are unable to find a place for themselves within the norms and rules imposed by society. In Natsuki’s eyes the role of a human being (an earthling) is to take its designated place in a gigantic Factory that produces people, nothing else. She does what she can to avoid becoming another cog.
Although the topics (social norms, motherhood, “otherness”, asexuality, etc.) that Murata touches upon in Earthlings are very similar to those that we could find in The Convenience Store Woman (or in fact most of her earlier, still untranslated novels), in the latest book, she takes us on a real rollercoaster ride. It seems that with every page the snowball grows with new shocking events, so much that this may force more sensitive readers to put the book aside to take a breather. So does this shock value lead to something deeper? Does it allow us to discover or understand something more about our society and ourselves? See for yourself.