Last year, I read and loved Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, it’s quirky questioning of societal expectations and small celebrations about being different. In fact, it was one of my Top Ten Books of 2019. So, when I saw this most recent translation of one of her works available on NetGalley, I requested it immediately and was super excited was I was granted access to an eARC. It also, wonderfully, fills Prompt #14 for the Reading Women Challenge 2020, “Set in Japan/by a Japanese author.” PLUS, it’s particularly unsettling and would be a perfect book to add to your creepy-Fall/Halloween-vibes TBR lists.
“What I’m really scared of is believing that the words society makes me speak are my own.”
In Earthlings, we read about Natsuki, a girl that isn’t like anyone else… She has a secret talking stuffed animal friend who is an envoy from somewhere else (maybe another planet?) who has gifted her with a magic wand and mirror. And during the summers, she spends time at a family home in the mountains with the only other person she knows that isn’t like anyone else, her cousin Yuu, who claims he is an alien. Together, they make secret pacts and promises to survive, not matter what. But when Natsuki experiences a trauma and the pact with Yuu goes a bit too far, her life changes forever. Now, she’s an adult, and she and her husband are planning to visit Yuu in the mountains for a small getaway. But seeing him again re-sparks her own (and her husband’s) feelings of not fitting in to the “Factory” of human life/existence, and this time all three of them take things to an extreme.
Well, Convenience Store Woman was an odd book, exploring themes of societal norms and expectations and how people who don’t follow those are criticized, seen as “wrong,” and encouraged to conform, so I wasn’t surprised to find similar themes here. But this entire novel takes things to a level that seemed more than just critical or exploratory and jumped right into over the top satirical and downright outrageous. And, overall, this is a much darker story. In fact, before moving any further, I want to explicitly point out some (kind of a lot of) CWs/TWs, in case it applies to you: [child] sexual assault and manipulation, incest, murder, cannibalism. That list alone gives some pretty good insight into the wild ride that is this story. But let me give you a little more about my thoughts/reactions…
First, the “good.” I truly haven’t read any other works/authors who can expose the ridiculous in the expectations and norms of “everyday” life like Murata can. It is incredibly impressive to read her satirical commentary on these standards, in this case, with language related to factories and machinery imagery with, a bit, of metaphorical talk of a medicinal variety (i.e. infections). She is able to write a very unique “outsider” view of patterns that for most of us are so ingrained as to not be questioned, like working, creating families and having babies, and repeating that cycle over generations. And even when the way she interrogates these normalities reaches a level that becomes difficult to believe, the critiques at base are still incredibly valid. Specifically, to this point, the way Murata portrays the psychosomatic responses and mental/emotional coping mechanisms of a child who has been sexually and emotionally abused is spectacular. It is authentic to Natsuki’s developmental stage, heartbreakingly so, and the judgmental commentary on how society “reacts” to those who have been abused when they come forward (even and in particular as adults), with excuses and victim-blaming and looking the other way, is scathing, as it should be. There is quite a bit of repetition of these concepts though, so do not expect any subtlety in their communication to the reader. However, that is a stylistic device that carries over from Convenience Store Woman, so if you enjoyed that one, it should also be ok here. In relation to this theme of the novel, I want to say that this is one that I would recommend to anyone who has ever felt socially isolated, that has felt odd or left out of the “natural” cycle of life, made to feel “other.” While reading these thematic points, this novel really acted as a sort of homing beacon to those who have ever felt like an alien among earthlings (if you will).
And now…I hesitate to say “bad,” but perhaps the…unexpected, unbelievable? I was on board with (and supportive of, if that’s the right way to describe it) Natsuki’s imagination as a child, her actions with Yuu (they were children and she’d had traumatic experiences, so it makes sense), the radical/extreme (though not undeserved) way she handled the “witch inhabiting her abuser’s body,” as well as her non-traditional union and agreement with her husband as an adult (in an attempt to subvert the expectations of compliance on women’s bodies). But once Natsuki and her husband run away to the mountains with Yuu at the end, things take a turn for the incredible, using the “not-credible” definition of the word. I mean, within the context of each of their own life experiences, especially as children, and considering (and I am not an expert on Japanese tradition by any means, but from what I’ve read) the fairly strict societal expectations and regulations of their culture, it’s not completely out of reality that they would react in such an extreme way when they finally decide to “escape” from it all. And satire does call for and make its point through extremes. But this was the point where I, as a reader, definitely became unsure as to whether this was a contemporary literature piece of fiction or a “magical realism” type work. In the end, it doesn’t necessarily matter, as the messages are clear regardless. But I do want to make it known that the book takes a turn for the legitimately preposterous, the very taboo, and the “my stomach is churning uncomfortably,” by the end. And I don’t know exactly what that “teaches” us, but I see how the three characters do find their own salvation/escape from having to act as if they want the same things out of life as everyone else, so I suppose that means they achieved their goals? If you have read and enjoyed novels like The Vegetarian by Han Kang, this aspect of the novel will likely appeal to you.
This novel was, in a word, surreal. It was a surreal reading experience. From start to finish. It was disturbing at times, but also carried great weight in its messages about the need to accept that there is not just one way to be, to love, to find fulfillment in life. Murata showcases with explicit detail the way the pressures of family and society to perform in a certain and “right” way, are unrealistic and should absolutely be questioned, because the alternative is permanently detrimental to those who don’t conform. And the more I sit with this story after finishing it, the more I think about it, the more powerful and important a statement this wildly unconventional story makes.
Some passages I highlighted:
“It’s really hard to put into words things that are just a little bit not okay.”
“Would I ever be able to live without constantly trying to survive?”
“Children’s lives never belong to them. The grown-ups own us.”
“Relief was winning out over pain. Our organs were blending together and making the sound of water. In our bellies, we were quietly eating each other’s body heat.”
“It was ludicrous. Grown-ups used children to satisfy their sexual desires, yet the very idea of children having sex of their own volition sent them into a total fit. It was laughable. They themselves were just society’s tools, after all! But my womb was still all mine. My body would belong to me alone until grown-ups killed me.”
“The grown-ups, who did what society wanted of them, were shaken by those of us who did not.”
“She’d grown up, but even now she still believed strongly in society. She had always been exemplary in learning to be a woman, truly a straight-A student. It looked excruciatingly exhausting.”
“If I asked myself what I was surviving for, I really couldn’t say.”
“Adults are expected to turn a blind eye to anything abnormal, aren’t they? That’s just the way it is.”
“On Earth, young women were supposed to fall in love and have sex, and if they didn’t, they were ‘lonely’ or ‘bored’ or ‘wasting their youth and would regret it later!’”
“People can easily pass judgement on others when they’re protected by their own normality.”
“Staying alive is about coming up with ideas. Living on the ideas that we come up with.”