Earthlings is a powerhouse of a book that quickly made it to my top 20 of 2020 list despite being one of the last books I read of the year. Earthlings put me in a head spin, in the best way possible. It went completely against the grain of what we know and love about literary fiction while simultaneously delving into a series of hard hitting topics, under the veil of child-like imagination.
Natsuki is our young protagonist; all she wants is for a spaceship to save her, and her cousin Yuu, and take them home. Spending only summers together in the Nagano mountains they promise one another to survive, no matter what, in the years that separates them. As time passes, Natuski lives quietly but contently in an asexual marriage; she pretends to be normal while hiding the horrors—and truths—of her childhood from family and friends. When Natsuki travels back to the Nagano mountains she is reunited with Yuu; they both survived but does he remember their promise and what it was all for?
Underneath all the bizarre-ness (not a word but you’ll have to come to terms with a lot more than made up words if you are going to stomach this novel) Earthlings explored a lot. The overarching theme of coping mechanisms, linked with a range of childhood trauma, stood out to me. Throughout the entirety of Earthlings I felt deep sympathy for Natsuki, our main character, because from very early on it is clear she is very good at disassociating and walking into her own world. It is easy to think this is simply childlike wonder but as you delve deeper into the novel we learn the sinister truth behind why Natsuki is simply “not like the other girls.”
As a rational reader we can convince ourselves Natuski’s idea of the world is imagined but who is to say it is? A person can convince themselves of anything in both good and bad ways. Natsuki’s strong beliefs about the world and how aliens are going to take her home and save her are completely harrowing because they stem from the reality that she is unloved and mistreated in her home life. However, if she retains a sense of hope and idealisation, using this imagined reality to bring her a sense of purpose in her life (while not hurting others) is there anything wrong with that? Is disillusionment an okay way of coping? At what point does it become unacceptable? Murata explores this question to varying lengths as we span through Natsuki’s life.
The relationship between Natsuki and Yuu is a central pillar to this novel. They are cousins who see each other annually when they go to the Nagano mountains for the summer. To Natsuki, Yuu is the only person she can confide in—someone who truly understands her. They forge an extremely deep connection. Their love for each other is so childlike and pure. On one hand, it is sad that this is the one of the limited shreds of love Natuski has in her life, however on the other it is incredibly special to see her be embraced by someone else. With this childlike love it is easy to understand and rationalize the events that unfold between them as kids (you’ve either read it, or you can figure it out so I don’t directly spoil it for you). However, if one attempts to analyze why this choice was made by the author it might be harder to come up with a rationalization for such things? The idea that they were children and didn’t know better is no longer applicable. Earthlings is a prime example of a novel I avoid fully questioning, in order to enjoy it to its full extent I must only accept.
While it was easy for me to accept and embrace the contents of Earthlings, however I have some qualms because I feel as though I, and others, weren’t given the option. With me, the weirder the better, but to have that stance is a bit of a luxury. It is a no secret that this book is quite fucked up, for lack of a better phrase, but we don’t discuss why—I’m even doing it here. This topic is extremely difficult to navigate because while traumatic content should be forewarned I am glad I didn’t know anything about this book before going in. As I type these words it becomes clearer to me that I said it best myself, the option is what matters. While I thought this book was completely brilliant I can easily understand that it would be seen by some, or many, as disturbing. This reality is something that felt completely missed whether it be through the cover, blurb, endorsements or general marketing. While I internally question my whole point here and wonder about ideas of freedom of art and the right to express, censorship and the like I think ultimately a “proceed with caution” sign swiftly followed by a read at your own need trigger warning page is really all it takes to broaden/improve readership when it comes to sensitive content.
Through Natsuki, Murata delves into the all important and completely dreadful question of what are we all here for? Can we really blame Natsuki for wanting to be saved by aliens? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It really depends on how you fit into the grain of broader society. We are told that Natsuki isn’t like the other girls. I’m sure I’m not the only girl who hates that idea when applied to society as we know it, but for Natsuki being like the other girls meant being a baby making a brainwashed component to The Factory—aka every day life. Natsuki doesn’t want to get caught up in this, but she seems alone in this sentiment. In our modern progression world it is natural to not all want the same thing and to go against the formula of life but this is a luxury that is not afforded to all. When you feel as though no one else thinks the same as you it is very daunting. Murata uniquely explores themes of isolation and aloneness in a severe way that can force the reader to question what are we all here for? In the most dramatic of ways Murata is telling us that it is okay to be different and if thinking an alien is going to come and save you is what gets you through the day then so be it.
Earthlings was simply unlike anything I have ever read in my life. As I write this review I am coming to terms with why I loved it so much. The free thinking, the determination and the kookiness we get from Natsuki (bearing all the actual fucking weird shit) really spoke to my soul. I just wanted her to be happy, to feel loved, and to get to live a life she wants. At the end of day, no matter what weird shit (in the eyes of the law, ethics and general respect for others) we get up to on the way, that is what we all want too.
By Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
2020. 247 pages.