Book Review: Earthlings // Sayaka Murata

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Earthlings is the second novel by the renowned Japanese author, Sayaka Murata. After gaining global recognition for her immaculate debut, Convenience Store Woman, Murata has been able to build up an almost cult following. Therefore, the whole world has had its eyes on Murata, eagerly anticipating the release of her new novel. Whilst Convenience Store Woman shocked the world with its incredible writing and slice of life approach, Earthlings will shock readers for other reasons. 

Similar themes run throughout both books: conformity, the idea of being a cog in the machine of society, and what constitutes a normal relationship. Everything that Murata mentions subtly in Convenience Store Woman is amplified in Earthlings. Murata’s surrealist approach allows her to express her anger over Japanese stereotypes on a level that was limited in her debut. We follow the protagonist, Natsuki, who represents those who do not fit into Japan’s cookie-cutter idea of what a woman should be. Natsuki lives a life replete with trauma and confusion, as she is portrayed as an alien from the planet Popinpobopia, with her childhood hedgehog toy being a kind of mentor for her. Whilst it is hinted that this planet doesn’t exist, Murata is able to express how many of us feel like we don’t quite fit into society. We often do feel like an alien. This feeling carries on into her adult life, as she decides to find a husband just like her; someone who refuses to fit into society’s oppressive expectations. 

Even though Murata’s use of surrealism works in respect to Natsuki, it falls flat with the characterisation of those that surround her. The rest of Natsuki’s family needed to be developed further. Through the jump from Natsuki’s childhood to her life as a married woman, Natsuki’s family shows no change. The surrealist way that Natsuki’s family is depicted is so exaggerated that it almost comes off as comical. Compared to other authors that use this same technique, Murata just doesn’t seem to accomplish what she is aiming for. Natsuki’s family, unfortunately, fall flat as characters due to their lack of personality and development.

Despite the book’s faults, Murata navigates Natsuki’s trauma admirably. As a child, Natsuki is groomed by her cram school teacher. Murata highlights how complex this kind of trauma is, as she depicts how Natsuki tries to process and come to terms with why this is happening to her. Natsuki is shown as trying to understand the peculiar world around her, which many of Murata’s readers will be cognizant of. 

Earthlings is an exploration of conformity, refusing to fit into society and doing everything in your power to avoid becoming what you hate. By the end of the novel, Natsuki has distanced herself from society in the most chaotic way possible. After deciding to leave with her cousin Yuu and husband Tomoya, they move into their grandparents’ abandoned house in a secluded area of Akishina. From here, scenes get extremely graphic and confusing, which disorientates the reader. It feels as if Murata has lost her way by the end of the novel, leaving a level of disappointment with the reader. While Convenience Store Woman ends beautifully, Earthlings is a bewildering mess of cannibalism and questions left unanswered. Convenience Store Woman was an outstanding debut that Earthlings was just not able to follow.

Words by Amy Britton

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