Book Review: “Earthlings” by Sayaka Murata is a Scathing Review of the Society We Live In

Try not to get carsick — Murata’s latest sends us on a rollercoaster of emotions

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Seldom am I filled with the urge to reread a book immediately. In fact, I dare say I have never had that feeling — until now. Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings swerves between the absurd and the inane, sending the reader on an intoxicating rocket ride into outer space while their feet are still firmly planted on the ground. Her language is evocative and lyrical and marks a stark contrast with the down-to-earth dialogue between characters. This is coupled by Ginny Tapley Takemori’s masterful translation — a seamless and faithful recreation of the original Japanese.

The Story, In Short

Our hero Natsuki is a young girl on the cusp of adolescence being forced into the adult world too soon. As the neglected younger child in a middle-class family who is only recognized when scolded, she feels the world is against her. Instead of acting out — like her older sister, the family dictator Kise — she retreats into her own world, safe from the outside world. Her only true friend is her cousin Yuu, who has his own family struggles. Together they make a pact to “Survive, whatever it takes.” Unfortunately, during a family gathering for Obon in the mountains, that plan goes awry…

Society is a Factory and We Are All Components

Earthlings is, at its heart, a scathing review of the society we live in. Natsuki’s utilitarian view on the world is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where every human has a role and is conditioned to be a useful member of the factory of society. She understands the rules the world has laid out for “earthlings”: get good grades, get a good job, be part of a breeding pair and create more babies (the womb is a “factory component”). Natsuki accepts this and has resigned herself to try to fit inside the mold made for her. Despite this — or perhaps because of this — I wanted to reach into the book to give her a hug and tell her everything would be okay. 

Dreamlike Madness

Murata is adept at chronicling the outside experience, but those expecting a mellow tale like Convenience Store Woman may want to adjust their expectations. Earthlings is more suited to fans of Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies (the TW Book Club pick for July 2020) or similar, as something sinister lurks behind the initial gentle and magical atmosphere Murata creates. Her carefully curated world unravels in startling ways, with each twist outdoing the last, creating an unrivaled mind-blowing reading experience that will have you talking about it for weeks. It’s an absolute must-read for 2020.

TW Rating: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5 Stars)

Earthlings is out October 6 and available via Grove Atlantic.

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