“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it”.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is an #OwnVoices Japanese fiction novel by acclaimed author of Convenience Store Woman. The story follows a young lady named Natsuki who as a child was an outcast in the eyes of her parents and sister, and whose only friend was a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut. Piyyut explained to her that he was a visitor from a far away planet named Popinpobopia on a very special quest to help Natsuki save Earth. Shortly afterwards, Natsuki begins to ponder as to whether she could be an alien as well and thus does not belong with the family that she cannot find common ground with, musings that become a bit more clearer (and stranger) once Natsuki matures into a grown woman.
What makes Earthlings such a fascinating feat of fiction is how absolutely absurd it is whilst dissecting some vital constructs of the modern era, particularly where the concept of being “normal” is concerned, along with the various ways that the human brain copes with trauma stemming from abuse and exploitation. Couple that with a surrealistically straightforward and terse prose, readers can expect some of the most innovatively bemusing literature to hit shelves yet.
Natsuki is a kid who is faced with an intensely lonely and alienating childhood that is laced with both verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. When she makes any attempt at seeking help for what is happening to her, she is met with disbelief and more ostracization. Her method of coping involves disconnecting from everything that is happening, causing her to become further disenfranchised from “fitting in” with people around her; an aspect that follows her well into adulthood.
The first half of the novel is a slow-burn build-up of the events that will work to formulate the mind-blowing climax to arrive in the second-half, and it is done in a marvellously meticulous yet chilling manner. The compiling sense of tension that begins to envelope the reader with each new atrocious encounter or experience that Natsuki undergoes creates an almost skin-crawling sensation. It is penetratively disturbing yet phenomenally cerebral, so much so that when everything implodes later on, the reader is left feeling utterly stunned.
My favourite element of the novel, aside from the insidiously psychological examination of how the psyche develops to protect against trauma, is the precise probe into the outrageous notion of normalcy. Individuals who reside within a perfect cookie-cutter existence are rarely able to view the many fallacies of the world, particularly if they are constantly unaffected by them. However, the outsiders and the oddballs who reside on the outskirts of this perception of perfectness—usually individuals that are neurodivergent or disabled—are the ones who truly comprehend just how awful a place the world can be; an infection to mental and emotional stability. When the grave catastrophes created by constructs such as capitalism or exploitation go unquestioned or uncontested, then the worst of consequences can occur, as depicted by the last one-third to one-fourth of the novel.
Earthlings is not for the feint-of-heart. There are some severe scenes of violence, brusque self-deprecating dialogue, on-the-page sexual molestation and rape, sexual exploitation of a child, many scenes of familial psychological and physical abuse, intense representations of anxiety and depression, social and sex-related awkwardness, and suicidal ideation, and the grotesque ways that normal able-minded and able-bodied folx perceive neurodivergent and disabled individuals. So, if you do find yourself intrigued by Earthlings, I recommend that you proceed cautiously. Even with the heavy subject matter and content, Earthlings is one brilliant novel, cementing Sayaka Murata as an up-and-rising author who has so much to offer the literary world.
Please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Grove Atlantic.