This book is wild, highly disturbing and utterly addictive.
We first meet Natsuki the protagonist and narrator at the age of 10 holidaying at her Grandparents whimsical property in the mountains of Japan with her extended family. Natsuki is especially excited to see her favourite cousin Yuu, who she confides in about her belief that she has magical powers given to her by a plush hedgehog toy, Piyyut, who is from the planet Popinpobopia (stay with me here…). Both Yuu and Natsuki believe they are aliens waiting for the spaceship to take them back to the motherland. Natsuki sees society as a factory for the production of babies, and that people or ‘earthlings’, are just components working for the factory. Be prepared to experience what could happen if you were to shed all of society’s rules and expectations, and completely reimagine the way we live. This book will challenge you, but broach it with an open mind, and you will be okay.
There is so much to say about this book, but very little that can be said without giving much away. It is short and pacy, and the story often escalates quickly. You will want to know someone else who has read, or is reading this book, so you don’t sound like you’ve lost the plot when you try to describe to people what you have just read, because you will need to talk about it. Beware that reading before sleep can lead to some very weird dreams.
I initially had this book marked out for a Bookety Club read until I was warned by a friend (thank you Arna) to possibly read it first, and I am glad I did. This book is full of plenty of uncomfortable reading; I would warn this particularly in the case of the sexual abuse that takes place in the book. So instead of luring along unsuspecting Bookety Club followers into a whirlwind they didn’t ask for, you can make your own mind up based on this information before diving in as to whether you want to head down this path.
Murata writes in defiance of her traditional upbringing in Japan where she was expected to learn to cook, find a nice husband, and have children. In 2007 Japan’s health minister, in an effort to raise the countries birth rate, said that all women who could, should have babies, sparking a new level of expectant pressure on women’s bodies as factories. Parts of this novel really reminded me of Meiko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs. Both novels are speaking on female autonomy in question of conservative Japanese views that don’t necessarily align with the views of younger generations, especially women. With this in mind it is no surprise that both authors have reached huge success for representing this narrative through their writing.
This book focuses on the exploration of taboos as a way of breaking free from conformity. And while most of the book you would never enact yourself, it will really have you questioning just why we function in the way we do. Huge extremes are shown to point out the absurdity of societal culture, and Natsuki’s child like take on adulthood was a highlight for me. It’s intense, but it’s also understandable as to how she draws these conclusions through a young imaginative mind. Natsuki and Yuu believing they are aliens is a very simple, yet clever, metaphor for the alienation they are experiencing in their lives in reflection of the fact the almost everyone has felt like an alien at some stage. There is a naivety that runs through all the characters which allows them to really explore the themes in the book. And the straightforward and clear narration won’t leave you guessing what actually happened, but instead asking yourself ‘did that ACTUALLY happen?’
Things really take a turn in around the last 20 pages. It is disturbing, quite frankly weird, and made me rather queasy. My advice, don’t finish this book around a mealtime. In an interview with iNews UK Murata said “I hate violence, but if I dig down into my characters’ personalities, it’s always there. It scares me to write about it and the gruesome ending of Earthlings surprised me. It made me think there are two Sayaka Muratas – the writer and the person. As my human-self, the ending put me off my food, but it was what my writer-self needed to do to be true to the characters.” My conclusion on the ending is that I am indeed an earthling.
So what did I actually think? It is quite brilliant. I enjoyed the challenge of this book, the points raised about how society treats those who don’t fit within the lines, and the imagination involved in the story. It takes a special kind of creative to write outside the lines of what would be considered in anyway commercial and to make it work. And if overt fictional novels, that push all the boundaries, and leave you questioning everything, aren’t story telling at its best, then I don’t know what is. One thing is for sure; you’re unlikely to read a book like this again.
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