Title: Earthlings (Goodreads)
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published: Granta, 2020
My Copy: Paperback
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle, Wordery (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
What I really loved about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman is the way she writes about social norms. She looks at social situations and asks the question, “What do we consider normal, and why it is so important?” Keiko was happy with her situation as a convenience store attendant, but the world and even her family wanted to push her to want more from her career and life. Murata seems to take this idea one step further in Earthlings.
The novel follows Natsuki, who even from a very young age felt like she did not belong here on earth. Both Natsuki and her cousin Yuu considered themselves to be aliens from another planet left on earth. Even when she got older, Natsuki had this viewpoint, and considered earth to be just a baby making factory. To keep her family off her back she married and hoped to just have a quiet life with her husband. However, her family kept demanding she have children and the pressure continuously grew to unhealthy levels.
Earthlings is a weird book; it explores the social pressures of reproducing but it does take a disturbing turn. I like the way Sayaka Murata looks at social issues and pushes the boundaries to show just how damaging they can be but I am also not a fan of the way this book ended. I do not think it is worth discussing the ending and if you have read the book, you know what I mean. I feel that the focus should be on how alienating social norms can be, and the way it made Natsuki feel. I have been married for eleven years and I know how frustrating it is when people ask me and my wife why we do not have children. This question is none of their business and tend to lead to awkward moments if you do decide to share the reasons. This novel plays with the social expectations of reproduction by constantly referring to the world as a baby making factory, like life has no value except creating children.
Sayaka Murata loves to push the boundaries with her characters and I am not going to try and diagnose these people in her books. I have seen far too many people claim Keiko was autistic in Convenience Store Woman, but does that really matter? You could probably label both Natsuki and her husband as asexuals in Earthlings, but it feels weird to label a fictional character. I am not a psychologist, so I do not want to diagnose Keiko with autistic and while I understand it is useful to show representation or to use psychoanalysis to analyse a book, I often find myself questioning the motives. If the author has not mentioned it, are we just projecting ideas onto a character? Granted this can be useful for understanding but it can also mean we are pushing these characters into a label and not letting them show us the problems with the world around us.
The writing of Sayaka Murata might not be for everyone, but I am looking forward to seeing what Ginny Tapley Takemori translates next. I want to read more books like this, where the author challenges social ideas and does it in interesting ways. This is a dark but very entertaining novel, and I am glad that Murata has done so well for herself in the English speaking world.