Review of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthling is a very absorbing and unconventional coming-of-age story. It is told from the perspective of an eleven year-old girl and then shifts to later in her life. Broken up into two perspectives, they are both profoundly effective and deeply disturbing. 

I found the novel to be an exploration of the rippling effect of abuse in myriad forms, and includes many outlying themes centered around social isolation, regret, misplaced love, and subtle questions of what it means to be human. The themes are woven beautifully, displaying a full range of emotion as they echo through the characters’ lives and relationships. It contains some of the most graphic and disturbing moments of child abuse and sexual abuse I have seen in literature, as well as an ending that will never be expunged from my mind. But it also contains a playful escapist, magical realist motif. The coping mechanisms used by the main character define the quirky relationships she maintains with her group of outcasts throughout her troubled life.

I was swept away by the straightforward, bold narration and the Murakami-esque magical intrusions. There was a dislocation of reality skewing the perspective, since the main character believes herself to be from another planet. It was harrowing and sad and I had to read the whole thing in one day. One of the best Japanese novels I have read in years, a must buy, and confirmation that Murata is a brilliant novelist, capable of more than the mundane brilliance that she showcased with her first English title, Convenience Store Woman. Earthlings expands upon many of the social concerns Murata brought up in her earlier novel. While that one was based on real-life experiences, I can only guess that some of the anger and detachment in this one comes from some level of real-life discontent. Her artistic achievement is remarkable though, and this book was better than the majority of Murakami’s novels and better than the recently translated Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami. With it, Murata joins the foremost ranks of Japanese novelists in my mind. This was a heartbreaking work, both memorable, terrifying and mesmerizing. You will probably never read anything like it again.

A lot of the reviews I’m glancing at on Goodreads are spoiling all of the surprises and taboos in the book. That’s why I’m not going to read them. I formed my own opinion and read it blindly, actually expecting another melancholy, droll, slightly comedic slice-of-life like her prior novel. I was bowled over. I’d recommend jumping into it blindly if you’re a brave reader, a fan of horror or psychological horror. You should trust that the author knows how to handle difficult material. Even if you disagree with how she handles it, you will still learn a lot by reading the book.

The character development, description and action all flow well and, while it is not the most literary of novels, it is polished and emotionally charged. The discussion of taboos and behavior by the character named Tomoya was a bit stilted or contrived, but otherwise, the juxtaposition of internal justifications and the surprising response we get to the narrator’s early life is utterly engrossing. It is not easy to predict where the story was headed but I found myself glued to the page.

Make no mistake. You could approach this as a horror novel in the same way you might cautiously approach the darker work of Ryu Murakami. But it has a distinctly feminine viewpoint, including an in depth allegory on Japanese traditions, touching on wifely duties, the concept of acting as a tool for society, brainwashing, and boldly assesses the loss of identity as part of a herd mentality, casting it as the death of individualism in traditional Japanese familial traditions. The inheritance of a patriarchal system creates an oppressive atmosphere, which may come off as forced, but which is really quite necessary for the plot. The plight of the outsider who chooses not to participate in the soul-crushing rat race is something I hope many of us can relate to on some level.

The judgement of others, the overreaction to the transgressions of childhood, the distrust children must endure as parasites to their parents all struck a chord with me. the way society guards normalcy and condemns the individual were all utilized in a thought-provoking argument. A quest, a searching, and the troubling prospect of getting by in a demanding society underlie the final, mind-boggling passages.

The sad reality of loss of innocence, the need to grow up forcefully, imposed on youth even when your childhood is stolen from you – those themes are all well-crafted here. The unrealistic expectations, the differing notions of love, the unpleasant need to keep up appearances, and the notion that human civilization is nothing but a baby-making factory, a gene reproducing mechanism with many moving parts, all combine into a solid backdrop for our eccentric narrator.

Mixing the societal expectations with the internal family pressure to preform, to have children, to fall in love, and to live the kind of existence that other people can accept, lend the tale great relevance. Really, a massive departure from her earlier novel, but I can’t think of another writer with this much courage working right now.

Thanks go to the publisher for the ARC via Netgalley.