Publishing Planets: Granta Books

Reading Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (2020) and Convenience Store Woman (2018).

‘My town was a collection of nests, a factory for manufacturing babies. I was a tool for the town’s good […] I had to study hard to become a work tool […] I had to be a good girl, so that I could become a reproductive organ for the town.’

Chiba, Japan: we meet Natsuki, an eleven-year-old girl. Rejected and treated as a burden by her demanding family, she holds Piyutt, her alien hedgehog, the magical powers he has bestowed upon her, and her beloved confidant and cousin, Yuu, at the centre of her universe. As children, and later as adults, they see the world rather differently, clinging to the hope that, as aliens, they can escape in a spaceship to their home planet Popinpobobia, from the oppressive world they inhabit. Flashed forward into her asexual life with her husband, a fellow resistant to ‘The Factory’, we see Natsuki’s story get weirder and wilder. After a series of horrific events, the lines between reality, childhood coping mechanisms, magic and science fiction become utterly blurred.

This is Murata’s second novel to be translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori, after Convenience Store Woman in 2018, published by Granta Books.

The latter, published in 2016 in Japan, is the unusual love story of Keiko and the Convenience Store, in which nothing really happens, but so much psychological and conceptual ground is covered. This is a woman’s search for freedom from society’s judgement on her nonconformity, preventing her from living out her identity peacefully as a convenience store worker. 

Earthlings explores issues of identity, trauma, and what it means to survive and be human, whilst pushing the exploration of taboo to the limits. This novel is a criticism of societal constraints, expectations and hypocrisy. Where Convenience Store Woman makes similar commentary, Earthlings takes the stakes and darkness to new extremes.

Murata’s unique writing style, experienced through Takemori’s anglophone lens, transports us through her protagonists’ rationale. We become observers of ‘earthlings’ or ‘ordinary people’, just like Natsuki and Keiko, looking in at ‘society’ from the outsider’s perspective. Despite the flat tone, Murata makes us feel horror and anger for her characters; uniting with them in the desire to break free. 

We see themes of identity throughout both novels, yet in Earthlings the situation is dire and dystopian. Where Keiko wants to ‘wear a mask’ and be a tool for society to create meaning in her life, Natsuki is constantly torn between wanting to be brainwashed, thus ending her suffering, and her desire to escape and claim her identity as an alien. The aliens see no meaning in their struggle until they establish survival and anti-conformity as their goal, fighting against transformation into tools, and for ownership of their own bodies. For Keiko, work is salvation, where Natsuki searches for meaning in survival and perhaps the drug (love), an area I wish could have been further explored before madness descended.

Both novels explore gender roles and sexism. Murata depicts the subjugation of men as tools, through her protagonists’ strange companions, yet the female experience is central: not only are the stories told from this perspective, but within ‘The Factory’ males become tools for society, where females are both tools and objectified by males to serve the same system.

It is not only the deadpan graphic descriptions of the perverse that stun, but the familiarity of Natsuki’s experience as a victim of sexual abuse. 

‘It’s really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay.’

We see her lose her senses, denoting her loss of autonomy; she is subjected to denial of her own experiences, victim blaming, and in her desperation to ‘become the sort of child that grown-ups found useful’, generally perform her femininity as palatably as possible, e.g. with the all-too-common ‘‘‘I’m sorry,’’ I said, automatically.’

In much the same way that Keiko imitates the behaviour of those around her to pass as ‘ordinary’, Natsuki feels she has to ‘match’ herself to others to ‘reduce the chances of causing offense if, for example, her words came across as ‘too curt and cold’. Is this a commentary on the people-pleasing tendencies instilled most firmly within society’s female population?

Convenience Store Woman is a less graphic, more hopeful, charming tale of alienation and survival within a world that wants to ‘cure’ you. I was reeled in by Earthling’s cute hedgehog on the cover, only to be spat out into the Akishina mountains, whacked over the head with a trophy and frozen, all in the name of survival. 

Proceed with caution, heeding the trigger warnings and avoid reading on a full stomach: this shocking, fast-paced modern fairy tale left me stunned and quite nauseated. 

By Felicity Hemming.