Natsuki is not like other Japanese girls. She has a wand and a magical transformation mirror, and a best friend, Piyyut, who may look like a cuddly toy hedgehog but is really an emissary from Planet Popinpobopbia. This may be a childhood fantasy to protect her 11-year-old self from the abusive adults around her, but 20-odd years later, Natsuki, married to an asexual man, is no closer to conforming to society's expectations. So the pair take a radical step... Shocking, heartbreaking and very funny-in short, another cult classic from the author of Convenience Store Woman.
It follows Natsuki, whose only antidote to gut-wrenching childhood trauma – sexual abuse, parental antipathy – is to remove herself from both her experiences and society. Soon she becomes increasingly convinced she is from a Martian planet. Her eventual union with kindred spirits is surreal and darkly comic, but, most of all, deeply sad.
Sayaka Murata’s new novel takes the quietly spoken themes of her cult hit Convenience Store Woman and sends them into orbit. The two books might be seen as siblings, though Earthlings would definitely be the evil twin. Both feature young women who reject society’s expectations and seek comfort in replacement forms of community. For Keiko in Convenience Store Woman, it was the reassuringly uniform, striplit security of the shop where she had worked all her adult life. For 10-year-old Natsuki in Earthlings, it’s the imaginary planet Popinpobopia, which she believes to be her destiny, at least according to her cuddly toy Piyyut.
Natsuki makes for a compelling narrator, and Earthlings is a frequently disturbing but pacy read, with its own off-key humour. I ripped through it, despite some misgivings. While Natsuki is vividly drawn, especially in childhood, other characters are frequently less convincing, and the story hurtles towards a lurid finale that Murata doesn’t quite pull off.
Murata, who has won all of Japan’s major literary prizes, spent 18 years working part-time in convenience stores before the success of Convenience Store Woman afforded her the freedom to write full time. That novel has sold more than two million copies worldwide and been translated into 23 languages. The wacky Earthlings might not have quite as many fans, but for those who are shocked by its developments, Natsuki herself has the answer:
“People can easily pass judgment on others when they’re protected by their own normality.”
Neglected by her parents in favour of her sister, Natsuki is being sexually abused by her teacher, but no one believes her. Yuu is burdened with the adult miseries of his lonely mother. The two children, perhaps because they are aliens, form a bond. The earthlings disapprove and keep them apart. In later life, after failing to find a role in Japan’s conformist society, they reunite for a grisly denouement. Are they aliens? The answer doesn’t matter because they might as well be. Murata’s previous novel, the excellent Convenience Store Woman, was also about the struggles of a misfit trying to conform. Earthlings is an altogether more brutal assault on the subject.
Akishina, Natsuki’s grandparents’ home in the mountains, grows in her and Tomoya’s minds to be the antithesis of the Factory — an Edenic escape from the demands of the machine. (There is no hint of irony that an ancestral home should be crucial to a narrator so determined to detach from earthly roots.) What happens when they return to Akishina is shocking, hilarious and hugely, darkly entertaining. Murata has crafted an unforgettable, original hybrid of absurd fantasy and stark realism.