As a child, Natsuki doesn’t fit into her family. Her parents favor her sister, and her best friend is a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut who has explained to her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia on a special quest to help her save the Earth. Each summer, Natsuki counts down the days until her family drives into the mountains of Nagano to visit her grandparents in their wooden house in the forest, a place that couldn’t be more different from her grey commuter town. One summer, her cousin Yuu confides to Natsuki that he is an extraterrestrial and that every night he searches the sky for the spaceship that might take him back to his home planet. Natsuki wonders if she might be an alien too.
Back in her city home, Natsuki is scolded or ignored and even preyed upon by a young teacher at her cram school. As she grows up in a hostile, violent world, she consoles herself with memories of her time with Yuu and discovers a surprisingly potent inner power. Natsuki seems forced to fit into a society she deems a “baby factory,” but even as a married woman she wonders if there is more to this world than the mundane reality everyone else seems to accept. The answers are out there, and Natsuki has the power to find them.
Dreamlike, sometimes shocking, and always strange and wonderful, Earthlings asks what it means to be happy in a stifling world and cements Sayaka Murata’s status as a master chronicler of the outsider experience and our own uncanny universe.
I’d taken a bit of a break from Japanese literature over the past few months, not deliberately, I’ve just been reading other things. Having enjoyed “The Cat Who Saved Books” by Sōsuke Natsukawa a couple of months ago, I decided to dive back in with another Japanese read by Sayaka Murata, an author I’ve enjoyed before.
In a similar style to my favourite, Yōko Ogawa, Murata draws the reader into her writing, in this case into the eyes of Natsuki, an eleven year old school child.
Without saying too much, this is a dark, unnerving read. Natsuki has a terrible childhood and it’s natural that in her adulthood she’s somewhat reserved, convinced that the majority of the population have been brainwashed by society and that she is an alien from another planet, namely Popinpobopia. Now in her 30s, Natsuki is doing all she can to resist societal pressures (being sucked into the baby-producing factory of ‘the Earthlings’) deliberately marrying a man on this agreement.
“It’s really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay.”
The story that plays out is a combination of sci-fi, magical realism and the horror of reality. It’s not always pleasant reading, but it’s fast paced, beautifully written and translated and I loved it! I particularly enjoyed the vivid descriptions and characterisation of Natsuki, her cousin Yuu and her husband Tomoya.
“People can easily pass judgment on others when they’re protected by their own normality.”
I can completely understand why someone wouldn’t enjoy this book and I wouldn’t recommend it to all – it’s an odd one – but I found myself totally immersed in this addictive story and devoured it from start to finish. For anyone interested, I would advise that there are some harrowing topics covered within this story.
I have to say, I was fully ready to review this book with a strong 5 stars until the very end. The ending was unexpected and completely bizarre, in a way that was a little too much for my tastes. I’m all here for slightly strange stories, but I couldn’t get my head around how this one wrapped up and do wonder if I missed some deeper meaning within it!
Despite the ending, I really enjoyed this bizarre read, one of the strangest I’ve read to date. I’d definitely recommend it, but only to the right audience.
Overall rating: I’m so glad to have given another book by Sayaka Murata a try! “Earthlings” is a weird story, and it’s harrowing too. I loved the vivid writing style and thought it was really well translated. I’m not sure about the bizarre ending though, that took this one down to a 4 star read for me!
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