If you’re looking for an example of a cover that’s a master of misdirection, then you’ve found it here with Earthlings. The colour pop background and soft toy might scream cute and quirky tale but what we actually have is a dark, disturbing – and so gut-wrenching – story of Natsuki. Not to say I didn’t enjoy reading this – its uniqueness hit me hard.
Opening sentence: Deep in the mountains of Akishina where Granny and Grandpa live, fragments of night linger even at midday.
Earthlings and Popinpobopians
Translated from its original Japanese, this novel by Sayaka Murata explores themes of society rules and expectations that she looked at in an earlier book I read by her, Convenience Store Woman. I really enjoyed this continuation of theme, although Earthlings went to far darker places than Convenience Store Woman.
The out-of-body magical power. I had to summon the out-of-body magical power. If I used that, then I wouldn’t have to feel anything.
It becomes clear early in the story that Natsuki uses her imagination to escape the realities of her life. Treated as the dud child by her family, specifically from her harsh mother, her concerns are brushed away – even serious allegations such as what her teacher is doing to her.
She thinks she’s a magician with special powers and in her cousin, Yuu, she finds her kindred spirit – he believes he is an alien, a Popinpobopian – searching for a ship to take him back to his home planet.
The magician would be the girlfriend of the alien, at least until he traveled back to his home planet.
Now, I appreciate this sounds like sci-fi or fantasy but it actually isn’t. To me, the tone reads initially as one of parable and hope but then twists into a much darker place.
The first two chapters are when Natsuki is 12, then in chapter 3 she’s 34 and we get both the present and flashback elements to the story. What’s clear is that Natsuki still believes in her magical powers and alien origins. Even more – she now has a husband who thinks in a similar way. Theirs is an asexual marriage of convenience, to get their families of their backs and escape the ‘Factory’.
Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told.
Just surviving is not living
The ‘Factory’ is how Natsuki refers to society. That people grow up, get jobs, pop out kids and nothing else is expected of them. No other part of life is important. As long as you are seen to be doing these things, that’s all that matters. But that’s not what Natsuki wants.
Living vs surviving is another interesting theme that comes through and reminded me of another book that looks at this, Station Eleven by Emily St.John Mandel. In Earthlings, the theme is very much tied to the main message of why do people have to fall in line with what society wants and be part of the ‘Factory’.
The grown-ups, who did what society wanted of them, were shaken by those of us who did not.
Earthlings is a totally unique read in that I didn’t know where the story would go next. The way the quirkiness was reflective of what Natsuki was going through was so well done. A page-turning look at how people both reject society norms and process trauma. Some parts were hard to read – it is meant to make you feel uncomfortable – but I couldn’t stop reading.
- Get your copy of Earthlings here
- Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
- First published in Japanese 2018. This translated edition published by Granta 2020;
- 247 pages;
- My rating: