Natsuki Sasamoto doesn’t start out as a remarkable child. The younger of two girls, she’s overshadowed by her elder, difficult sister, Kise, whose demands leave their mother running a constant deficit of parental attention. So it’s unsurprising that Natsuki, convinced she is nothing more than an inconvenience to her family, turns to an imaginary friend.
Piyyut “looked like a white hedgehog plush toy, but actually he was an emissary sent by the Magic Police on Planet Popinpobopia”, and he helps Natsuki use her “magical powers”. Such fantasies are the everyday, endearing stuff of childhood. But what Sayaka Murata does in Earthlings, her 11th novel but only the second translated into English, is to interrogate what happens when, far into adulthood, a character fails to put away childish things.
Murata came to international attention in 2018 with Convenience Store Woman, a bestselling novel that grew out of her own 20-year experience of working at an unnamed convenience-store chain in her native Japan. Earthlings shares with that novel the viewpoint of the misfit; a glib acceptance of conventionally unacceptable violence; and an adult aversion to sex — a real-life phenomenon among under-40s in Japan.
We meet Natsuki as an 11-year-old on her way to her grandparents’ home, Akishina, for the annual Obon festival, a summer gathering of more aunts, uncles and cousins than Natsuki can keep track of: “I couldn’t remember all the kids who were close in age to me, let alone my cousins’ kids, and had to relearn who everyone was every year.” Natsuki’s focus is reserved for her cousin Yuu, the only person with whom she has shared the secret of Piyuut and who, in turn, has confided to her his own secret, concluded from a throwaway remark by his mother that he was abandoned on earth by a spaceship.
The adults in the family fondly observe this bonded pair as being “like twins” but to each other, they are solemnly sworn on a pinkie promise: “The magician would be the girlfriend of the alien, at least until he travelled back to his home planet.” Yet during their stay in Akishina the two cousins take a step that shatters the festive spirit and ruptures the fabric of the family for decades to come. Natsuki, already unloved at home, is ostracised by a punishment that brings its own grim consequences.
When we are reunited with her 23 years later, it’s clear that the summer in Akishina has defined everything about Natsuki. Now married, she shares a home but neither a bed nor any physical contact with her husband, Tomoya. It’s an arrangement that suits them both, which they actively sought on a specialist matching website. What they do share is a view of the world as a “Factory”, in which humans — the Earthlings of the title — are mere components who obediently couple up in the endless production of more workers.
It’s hard to argue with the metaphor — just ask any couple of child-bearing age about the casual pressures dropped into conversation with family, friends, the occasional stranger at a party — but to Natsuki and Tomoya, the divide between them and Earthlings is literal.
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. What are we to think of a character who has earned our sympathy yet whose unflinching take on a parent’s grief is: “Humans got really worked up when an organism that had inherited their genes was killed.”
Akishina, Natsuki’s grandparents’ home in the mountains, grows in her and Tomoya’s minds to be the antithesis of the Factory — an Edenic escape from the demands of the machine. (There is no hint of irony that an ancestral home should be crucial to a narrator so determined to detach from earthly roots.) What happens when they return to Akishina is shocking, hilarious and hugely, darkly entertaining. Murata has crafted an unforgettable, original hybrid of absurd fantasy and stark realism.
Earthlings, by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Granta, RRP£12.99/Grove, RRP$26, 256 pages
Maria Crawford is an FT commissioning editor
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