Sayaka Murata: 地球星人 (Earthlings)
Our heroine and narrator is Natsuki Sasamoto who, at the start of the book, is eleven. She lives in Tokyo with her parents and her older sister Kise. As far as she is concerned, there are two families – her parents and Kise on the one hand, and she herself on the other. The others all pick on her, criticise her (This child is so stupid and slow at doing whatever she’s asked. She’s like a weight around my neck.) and even hit her. However, she has Piyyut. Piyyut is a stuffed toy, specifically a white hedgehog. However He was from Planet Popinpobopia. The Magic Police had found out that Earth was facing a crisis and had sent him on a mission to save our planet. Since then I’d been using the powers he’d given me to protect the Earth. He also protects her.
Every year the family go up to the mountains to the grandparents’ house where they celebrate Obon, the festival honouring the ancestors, with the extended family. There she meets her cousin Yuu who is an alien from Planet Popinpobopia. The couple are in love. Yuu is waiting for a spaceship from the motherland to come and take him home.
The journey there up the winding mountain road is difficult for Kise who is car-sick. She complains bitterly and wants to go home, not least as she does not get on well with cousins, or, indeed, anyone else. Eventually, her ever-compliant parents concur and they decide to leave. Natsuki is devastated as she has only just re-established contact with Yuu. She quickly asks him to marry her and he concurs. Piyyut is their pastor.
Natsuki has a strong view that where she lives is a factory. You get a job, get married, have children and then the next generation does exactly the same thing. There are no options here. They will make sure you follow the rules. This idea is key to this book. Firstly, I had to study hard to become a work tool. Secondly, I had to be a good girl, so that I could become a reproductive organ for the town. I would probably be a failure on both counts, I thought.
Her teacher is Mr Igasaki, a young good-looking man whom all the girl fall for. All the girls except our heroine. He keeps her behind and then behaves inappropriately. When she mentions this to her mother, she is fiercely criticised. Finally, he more or less drags her to his house and makes her perform oral sex on him. With the help of Piyyut, she will have her revenge.
Grandfather dies so everyone assembles again at the house in the mountain. One night, Yuu and Natsuki sneak out. She wants to have sex with him to cleanse herself from Mr Igasaki. They are naked and intimate (the word used throughout this book for sexual intercourse, which Natsuki mocks) when they are discovered. All hell breaks loose. Both are beaten. Natsuki is locked up in her room. The annual Obon trips are cancelled. She is forbidden from having any contact with Yuu and is closely monitored even when she goes to college and then gets a job.
She still very much does not want to be part of the Factory so she finds Tomoya online. He is like her. He does not want to be part of the Factory so they rent a flat and keep more or less separate lives. They eat separately, do their laundry separately and, in particular, sleep separately. Not only is there no sex, she has to to be fully covered in his presence at all times. They get on well but like brother or sister. Naturally, their families do not know of their arrangement. His views are Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotised into thinking that they’re great.
Tomoya loses his job – again – and wants to get out of Tokyo for a while. He had heard much about the house in the mountains from Natsuki and wants to go there. Both grandparents are dead and the house has been left, with plans uncertain for its future. Natsuki, now thirty-one, had seen neither Yuu nor the house since they were discovered in flagrante delicto. Yuu had had a job but had been made redundant and is now living in the house on his own. Natsuki makes discreet enquiries to see whether she and Tomoya can visit and, after all this tine, is it is agreed.
Yuu, it turns out, has abandoned his childhood dreams about being an alien and is happy to be part of the system. However, when he sees that Natsuki has not changed much and Tomoya is of a similar view, he rejoins the aliens and Tomoya joins in. However, Tomoya foolishly decides to convert his brother-in-law and brings down the wrath of the family on him, particularly when he confesses to his marital arrangement with Natsuki. Do it a lot and make a family, then once the relationship has cooled, you play around outside the marriage. That’s the way it is for lots of couples, isn’t it? his mother tells him. But Tomoya, Yuu and Natsuki do not want to be co-opted so it is back to the house. But, in the Factory, the past will catch up with you.
This book starts off as though it is going to be about a not uncommon idea that children sometimes have, namely that they are aliens and that they have some magic powers to escape the adult world. It moves on to the idea that there is an adult world and we are all expected to belong to it and more less conform to its rules, with marriage, job and children. There is no other way. Natsuki is coerced not just by her parents but also by her sister and friends, who all are married with children.
It is the ending that is particularly well done in this book as the three outlaws genuinely try to live another way and be different from the model Society has imposed them. We suspect that it might not work out but Murata does surprise us.
This is once again most original book from Murata. If you have read ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman) – and if you have not, I recommend it – you will know that she is a very clever writer However, this book is far superior. I was nearly put off by the beginning but it develops into a first-class work which utterly condemns the job-marriage-children routine most of us are subject to and, indeed, willingly follow. It may be that we cannot escape but we should die trying to do so. I will leave you to determine which side of the fence you are on.
First published in 2018 by Shinchosha
First English translation in 2020 by Granta
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori