Japanese author Sayaka Murata first made waves with American readers with her 2018 English-language debut, Convenience Store Woman, a startlingly bizarre meditation on Japanese culture and the pressure to conform above all else. Murata’s latest novel, Earthlings, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, continues to explore life on the fringes in Japan through an even darker and weirder lens, one that will take most readers on a wild ride far beyond the outermost limit of their comfort zones.
Superficially, Earthlings is the coming-of-age story of a young girl named Natsuki and her cousin, Yuu, who process and explain their sense of alienation from their families by internalizing the belief that they are both actually from another planet. The subsequent fallout of this mindset is a series of increasingly disturbing and shocking events that heighten the duo’s inability to fit into conventional and conservative Japanese society and their overall disassociation from the world. To say any more would spoil the book, as so much of the story’s grotesque joy depends on the surprise at just how perverse things can get. It is a book that must be experienced firsthand, but it is also a book for which a single trigger warning would not be adequate, as it enthusiastically challenges most of our most deeply held societal taboos.
Whereas Murata’s goal with Convenience Store Woman may have been to gently unsettle her readers, it’s clear that Earthlings’ mission is to actively disturb. By disrupting her readers’ complacency, Murata allows us to better empathize with the misfits she champions. As her characters’ unease and discomfort becomes our own, we gain greater awareness of how it feels to be an outsider looking in.
The journey is often rather harrowing and bewildering and will appeal to few readers. But for adventurous readers who revel in a book that defies expectations and dares to be outlandishly different, Earthlings is a mind- and soul-expanding countercultural battle cry that is utterly one of a kind.