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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Murata Sayaka

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To purchase Earthlings

Title: Earthlings
Author: Murata Sayaka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Earthlings - US
Earthlings - UK
Earthlings - Canada
Das Seidenraupenzimmer - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 地球星人
  • Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creatively presented tale of the lasting damage that can be done to children

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 3/10/2020 .
Financial Times . 25/9/2020 Maria Crawford
The Guardian . 4/11/2020 John Self
The Japan Times . 3/10/2020 Kris Kosaka
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/10/2020 Lydia Millet
The Observer . 13/10/2020 Holly Williams
Sunday Times . 4/10/2020 David Mills

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a novel about trauma -- the trauma of bullying, childhood sexual abuse and of being blamed for that abuse. Ms Murata admonishes Japan for its conformism, as well as for the pressure put on women and couples to have children, and the way victims of sexual violence can be regarded with suspicion (both problems in other countries, too). In her unique, deadpan style, she shows how the treatment of people on society's fringes can itself be a form of violence, irreparably damaging their connection to the world." - The Economist

  • "As sole narrator, Natsuki relates all this in a spare, blunt tone that appears to hide nothing. The transparency of Murata's prose and dialogue is jarring, seeming to rob the reader of all rights to interpretation. Yet what it really does is repeatedly throw us off balance -- such matter-of-factness is dizzying. (...) Murata has crafted an unforgettable, original hybrid of absurd fantasy and stark realism." - Maria Crawford, Financial Times

  • "(W)hatever Earthlings is, whatever planet it comes from, it's a tale of quiet desperation to make your brain fizz." - John Self, The Guardian

  • "Readers will scramble to the last page gasping in shock, emotionally battered but triumphant. This book leaves scars, tearing through poisonous families, sexual assault, violent deaths, revenge and oppression -- but it's well worth the pain. (...) (E)ven at its most heavy-handed moments, Murata's use of repetition and subtle persuasion echoes the psychological playbook of cults, and her critical eye on society is sharp." - Kris Kosaka, The Japan Times

  • "The new book's plot makes a charming elevator pitch, even if you leave out juicy tags like pedophilia, rape and murder. (...) The novel's tone hovers between deadpan and naïveté: Even in its episodes of violence it has an affectless quality, which we presume is a function of Natsuki's PTSD from the sexual assault (plus her E.T. origins, of course). Its appeal lies precisely in this tonal flatness -- the anthropological distance the narrator maintains from her subjects." - Lydia Millet, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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." - Holly Williams, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Earthlings is narrated by Natsuki Sasamoto, who begins her story as an eleven-year-old. Her mother dotes on her older sister and is constantly putting Natsuki down, to the extent that Natsuki doesn't even really feel like part of the family, but more like an intruder on this otherwise happy domestic scene. She does have one companion, bought when she was just six, a plush toy that she found: "on the edge of the soft toy display and looked as though he was about ready to be thrown out" (i.e. something can readily identify with). She calls it Piyyut and endows it with a fantastical backstory: he's from the Planet Popinpobopia and has magical powers, and he's here to save the planet. Though in some ways mature and self-sufficient, her devotion to the toy and immersion in a fantasy world which she clearly wants to believe in show just how much of a child she still is.
       The only other person she shares her secrets with is a cousin, Yuu, whom she only sees every summer at their grandparents' house, deep in the mountains, in Akishina. Yuu, too, is somewhat of an outsider -- conveniently in a way that neatly fits Natsuki's fantasies, as his mother apparently always tells him: "You're an alien, she says. You were abandoned by a spaceship, and I took you in". The two damaged children find a hold in each other -- pledging even in a mock marriage ceremony (which they take very seriously) also to remain true to each other. Understanding just how great their need for that hold in another that they can't find anywhere else is, and that they will be separated for an entire year, until the next summer, they also pledge to: "Survive, whatever it takes". Over the years, that proves to be a tall order.
       Back home, Natsuki attends a cram school. The teacher is a Mr. Igasaki, a handsome student whom the girls all swoon over. Only Natsuki sees and feels that there's something off here -- but, a mere sixth grader, finds:

     It's really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay.
     I had the feeling that Mr. Igasaki was a little bit not okay.
       Her feeling is spot-on, as his increasingly inappropriate behavior towards her soon proves. Natsuki tries to tell her mother that something bad is going on, but given what her mother thinks of her that falls on deaf ears; the scenario Natsuki hints at is unimaginable to the adult:
It's not as if a teacher would take any interest in a child with an underdeveloped body like yours. It's only because you've got a filthy mind that you would think that. You're the dirty one, not him.
       Yes, Natsuki's household is not a supportive one, and even though Natsuki knows her teacher's increasingly creepy advances are wrong, she is unable to escape them. If already damaged by the way she is treated at home, Igasaki's horrific behavior is truly crushing. Just how much Natsuki is alone in this suffering is also made clear when she later mentions the few times she tried to talk, years later, with friends about what happened to her; they are incapable of understanding, with one unhelpfully suggesting:
Even if it's true ... After all, he was so cool you must have purposely let down your guard. That's basically consenting, isn't it ? I can't understand why you're playing the tragic heroine, really.
       Natsuki at least manages a form of escape when shortly after the worst encounter with Igasaki she is able to travel to Akishina and see Yuu again, though it is for a sad occasion, the death of their grandfather. She turns and clings to Yuu even more strongly, as the only support she can find, and his generally deferential attitude, accepting her demands unquestioningly, is helpful. She insists on making their union an even more absolute one -- with catastrophic results, the children's actions beyond the pale in the eyes of the adults, and the two torn apart.
       The narrative then abruptly moves ahead more than two decades, Natsuki now in her mid-thirties and married. Her tone and her affectless description is unchanged however -- as is, it turns out, almost everything about her: as Yuu notes when they spend some time together again, twenty-three years after they last saw each other: "It's really like you're frozen in time". The events of her tween years stunted her and if she has been able to move on in appearance, inside she remains catastrophically damaged.
       We learn what happened in the aftermath of her last encounter with Yuu in Akishina -- the last time she was able to visit that idyll -- and the (mercifully brief) reäppearance of Mr. Igasaki in her life. We also learn of one final horrific act from that time, with Natsuki apparently acting (out) decisively -- with Piyyut giving her the necessary courage. While the outcome is clear, how it exactly came to that is purposefully left somewhat vague -- with more uncertainty creeping in later in the story -- but Natsuki is willing or even indeed eager to assume responsibility (even as she keeps it secret from everyone else), finding in it empowering agency.
       While she puts on a face of normalcy in adulthood, it's clear how damaging those childhood experiences were. Her marriage is a sham, arranged via an internet service that paired her up with a man who similarly wanted to escape family pressure to marry but had no interest in a romantic or sexual relationship. Natsuki and Tomoya sleep in separate rooms and have never had sex; they're basically little more than independent roommates. (Yes, Tomoya is also a damaged soul.)
       From childhood on Natsuki sees the world around her as a factory: "My town is a factory for the production of human babies", she observes early on. Her way of seeing the world like this expands and hardens as she grows up, her only surprise being that she is not coöpted and subsumed by this omnipresent system, as all around her:
     Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they'd failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.
       Natsuki has gotten very good at this, but Tomoya reaches a breaking point which leads him to act out in a way that also reveals to their families the sham-life they've been leading -- and, in the 'Factory'-world, appearances and family-honor matter a great deal. For a while, Natsuki had found peace back in isolated Akishina, with just Tomoya and Yuu -- the trio living happily at a distance from 'the Factory', embracing Natsuki's childhood-fantasy world as an escape. More than two decades after she had last been there, Akishina is now even more of an isolated spot: "what you call a critically depopulated village, with lots of empty houses. It's a bit bleak, really" -- but in fact the ideal retreat for these characters who do not fit in in society at large.
       With Tomoya's brief attempt to reconnect with his family -- in surely the worst possible way -- the world comes crashing down on them again, Natsuki and Tomoya dragged by their families back down to earth, as it were. Yet they escape one more time, back to Akishina, and again with Yuu -- and this time, thanks to nature, they are even more cut off from the world at large. They go feral, one might say, and even when the outside world intrudes again, they're sufficiently in a world of their own to, essentially, avoid succumbing to it. The results are, however, not pretty, as Murata's novel culminates in scenes of surreal near-absurdity -- but all too plausibly real.
       Earthlings is a novel of the damage adults do to children and the lasting injury and catastrophic costs. For long periods Natsuki, Tomoya, and Yuu seem to fit in well enough, behaving within the expected parameters, but they can't completely hide the fact that, in their different ways, they are far from whole. As Yuu told Natsuki when they were young: "Children's lives never belong to them. The grown-ups own us" -- and the grown-ups are far too unconcerned about the consequences of how they treat and handle children (except presumably for Mr. Igasaki, who is surely well aware of the devastation his depravity inflicts). Even if the adults aren't conscious of the damage they're doing -- Tomoya's mother forcing him to bathe with her until he was fifteen, leaving him unable to: "handle a real woman's body" -- the scars are devastatingly deep and lasting. One of the strongest scenes in the novel has Natsuki regain the sense of taste she had lost when she was a tween, able to taste again after more than twenty years of feeling nothing: "I'd thought my mouth would never recover as long as I lived, but now it was my own again". The point is what it takes for her to regain that sensation: the act that took it away was beyond what any child should have to deal with, and so also that which brings it back is one beyond the pale.
       Part of the childhood fantasy of Earthlings is that there is an alien world, a Planet Popinpobopia. At first Natsuki doesn't see herself as an alien -- it's her plush toy that she imagines being from there -- but life experience pushes her to seeing herself always as so different she might as well be from another planet -- all the way to and through adulthood. The world she finds herself on is dominated and controlled by earthlings, all part of the Factory, but she does not belong. For a long time she hoped she'd just become part of this world -- "I just hoped the Earthlings would succeed in brainwashing me" -- but she never can -- the scars are too deep, making for a rift that can't be bridged. The rigid world, imposing its ideas and ideals on her (and Tomoya and Yuu), can't make room for her kind.
       This is a dark story, but Natsuki's tone remains light and bright (and disturbingly unchanging between child- and adulthood), a very effective contrast between subject and form. Even as a young girl, Natsuki aimed to please and tries to conform, but her world was largely unreceptive to her efforts. Given her experiences, including living with a bratty, spoiled sister, it's no wonder she isn't tempted to have a family of her own -- even as the pressure to do so is overwhelming in this society. She tries her best to fit in as best possible, not to ruffle any feathers, studying, working, and even settling down in the traditional, married way -- but all along she's really just on a parallel track, never really fitting in the Factory-world. Natsuki practically never really rebels, at least not in a confrontational style, which adds to the pervasive feeling of unease: her bratty sister loudly lashes out, but that's still part of playing along the right way. Meanwhile, the attempts that Natsuki makes at reaching out are slapped down; in a sense she simply can't be helped -- this society isn't equipped to do so, preferring to remain blind to what is damaging her -- and so she's left to her own very creative devices. That things ultimately get way out of hand doesn't come as a surprise.
       It's a well-fashioned tale, a modern horror story not so much concealed as revealed in the narrator's trying-so-hard-to-be-upbeat (yet not forced) attitude and voice. A distinctly Japanese outsider story, it nevertheless resonates universally. Earthlings is a deeply disturbing story, and if elements seem somewhat simplistic -- it's hard to believe so many of these characters are so dense and misguided -- still makes its points very effectively.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 October 2020

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Earthlings: Reviews: Other books by Murata Sayaka under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murata Sayaka (村田沙耶香) was born in 1979.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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