“Left me cold” – Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

IMG_28Jun2021at140951Sayaka Murata, the author of Convenience Store Women (which we liked), is back with Earthlings, a however-you-cut-it-strange novel. I came to this book (much as I came to Breasts & Eggs) somewhat spoilt by online enthusiasm. I liked Convenience Store Woman, people are excited / enjoying Earthlings, ergo I’m bound to like it too, right? Sadly no (although, it should be said, I didn’t dislike it in the way I disliked Breasts & EggsEarthlings just failed to connect).

So. Story. Our narrator is Natsuki. We first meet her as an eleven year old travelling up to Akashina (in the mountains, requires passage along some hairpin bends) for a family gathering where she is looking forward to meeting up with her cousin Yuu who is also her secret boyfriend. Natsuki has a magical cuddly toy called Piyyut who has given her an origami magic wand and a magical transformation mirror. Oh and Yuu is an alien from the planet Popinpobopia. Roll that word around in your mouth a bit – Pop-in-po-bo-pea-a – as you’ll be reading it a lot. Within a day or so Natsuki and Yuu engage in an activity that causes outrage such that they don’t meet each other again until they are grown up.

Flash forward a good few years later. Natsuki is married. But not married in the way you and I might imagine marriage. She finds a man through a website, the both of them not wanting to be part of the machine of marrying and reproducing.

“Society was a system for falling in love. People who couldn’t fall in love had to fake it. What came first: the system or love? All I knew was that love was a mechanism designed to make Earthlings breed.”

What’s more:

“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it.”

And:

“On Earth, it seems couples have to mate, doesn’t it?” “I can deal with having to work. But I don’t want to mate. If I mated with you, we wouldn’t be ourselves anymore.” “But our bodies aren’t our own. They belong to society. We’re tools of society…”

Ah ok, you might think – so this is a novel in which someone who thinks and feels slightly differently is made to explore her society as if she was looking at things from the eyes of an alien (an alien from Popinpobopia). Yes. Kind of. But Earthlings is also SHOCKING. (Important note – if you like Earthlings and you’re thinking oh he didn’t like Earthlings because of the shocking elements – the shocking elements were my favourite parts of the book). There is child abuse. There is savage murder. There is cannibalism. Each of these is quite savage and shocking and yes ok slightly otherworldly. And as I read I could feel the power of Murata’s writing. But the spark, the flame, the enticement, the feeling of a book as it slyly grips you and pulls you into its world was lacking.

There is a scene towards the end of the book in which a father berates his son and a sort of row ensues:

“Yuu was a good actor, too, playing the part of someone desperately trying to get a father to calm down and stop beating his son. He blended completely into the scene being brought to life by my father-in-law. “Stop, please! Help!”

That’s it, I thought. It feels like I’m reading about characters in a book. Or watching actors in a play. Perhaps Murata is employing a Brechtian distancing device. Or perhaps more simply the novel just left me cold, failed to ignite, never quite reached me.

All of which would seem to indicate that the lesson of the day is: don’t pay attention to online frothing. Or unfollow those people who keep getting excited about books that don’t turn out to be as exciting as they make them out to be. Or, you know, recommend better books to those people to raise their game so that they start to understand what a great book really looks like (hey those people! start with Timoleon Vieta Go Home by Dan Rhodes! Then you can come and talk to me about books that are heartbreaking at the end!).

Any Cop?: Whilst Convenience Store Woman took a little time to grip me, it did grip me. As Earthlings remained solitary and distant like a far off star I’m going to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as her debut. Disappointing.

One comment

  1. Hype has ruined many books and movies for me. Sorry you didn’t connect with this one, I think you missed the humor in it though. Also, just because you didn’t like a book doesn’t mean it isn’t great. It just wasn’t great for you.

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