Sayaka Murata - Earthlings (2018)
Review published Aug 09/2021 Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(Spoilers, cw sexual assault)
Almost every character in this novel is a victim, even the ones antagonistic to the protagonistic Natsuki. I think the tragedy at the center of this novel is the complete lack of mental therapy or vocabulary around trauma in Japan. The characters are scarred and oppressed by patriarchy: Natsuki's mom is abused at work while expected to take care of kids and live with a likely sexist husband. Natsuki's sister is bullied at school, and bullies Natsuki in order to get on her mom's side. Natsuki's mom abuses her verbally and physically. Natsuki views herself as a 'trash can', hears and is possessed by voices, loses sense of taste and hearing for 20+ years due to rape, even murdering her rapist while undergoing intense disassociation.
Most characters are possessed by heteronormativity to a toxic degree: superimposing their beliefs onto Natsuki well into adulthood, expecting her to have kids, while at the same time, living absolutely miserable lives due to their obedience to the system (or "Baby Factory", as Natsuki views it)
The three main characters - Natsuki, childhood crush Yuu, and Natsuki's husband, all have traumatic childhood experiences, but none of them is able to escape or heal. Yuu had to take care of a single, suicidal mom, becoming overly obedient as a result. Natsuki's husband was presumably molested by his mom into his teens, having to bathe with her.
As adults, Natsuki and her husband (A marriage of convenience) develop views that are critiques of the insanity of heteronormativity. But the tragedy here is that they never integrate into society or seek out other non-heteronormative (or simply less heteronormative) people. Instead, their views end up destroying their minds as they shelter in an abandoned home in the woods, resorting to cannibalism and then starvation.
I don't read the ending as a "anti-heteronormativity is bad!" thing, but more of the set-up of the plot playing out to its logical end. In Earthlings' world, there is no escape from the nuclear-family social structure. There are no queer communities, therapists, or communities of people who want to live outside of social norms. In this novel's world, of someone doesn't want to create a nuclear family with kids, they are obliterated and thrown into delusional beliefs.
People traumatized at work or as kids - like Natsuki's mom and sister - are never able to heal from these traumas, instead carrying grudges their entire lives and inflicting violence down the line (When Natsuki flees to the mountains, Natsuki's sister rats out Natsuki's responsibility for a murder of a rapist). Natsuki's mom continuously seeks to exert control over everything. Natsuki's childhood friend is pushy and never listens to her, and other friends of Natsuki who she reveals her abuse to, often push her away or don't believe her.
As a whole, I do think this book is pretty relevant for many. I know some number of people my age or older who carry *ridiculous* familial or interpersonal grudges for decades, and seem intent on carrying it with them forever, letting it weigh and compress them down into a little ball of misery, defining them, making them project it into their conversations or interactions with others.
As a more meta-note, I looked into what the many other novels by Murata are about, and many of them are speculative or around themes rethinking heteronormativity. My guess is those would be immediately less marketable in the USA (I mean, look at Earthlings' cover... it looks chipper and fun! seems like publishers gotta be crafty to get people to read!). In that sense, it was very wise of the translator/publisher to put out Convenience Store Woman first because of its ability to build an audience off of the 'cool japan' thing...
I'm curious to read more of her and hope she's translated soon!
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