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If Sayaka Murata’s English debut “Convenience Store Woman” thoughtfully chiseled at societal constructs such as marriage and career success, her newest work in English, “Earthlings,” wields the same themes like bludgeons. Readers will scramble to the last page gasping in shock, emotionally battered but triumphant. This book leaves scars, tearing through poisonous families, sexual assault, violent deaths, revenge and oppression — but it’s well worth the pain.

Earthlings, by Sayaka Murata
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
256 pages
GROVE ATLANTIC

The novel is narrated by Natsuki, a creative and observant 11-year-old who feels isolated within her dysfunctional family. She finds solace in her imagination and a stuffed toy hedgehog she names Piyyut. As a way to escape her reality, Natsuki pretends to receive magical powers from Piyyut, whom she believes is an alien. She also finds comfort in her soulmate and cousin, Yuu, an equally lonely child struggling with his single mother’s mental instability. The two promise each other to “survive, no matter what,” and count down the days until their annual summer reunions when the extended family gathers at Granny’s house in the Nagano mountains.

As a survival mechanism, the children revel in their shared fantasies of elaborate alien worlds, believing themselves to be extraterrestrials and calling humans “Earthlings.” When the summer ends and Natsuki returns to school, her reality tilts toward tragedy and she fights back, setting off a series of shocking events that hit upon taboo topics from murder to incest.

The story then jumps forward more than 20 years, where we find a 34-year-old Natsuki once again facing a difficult choice. Married now to a fellow outsider, family and friends heap increasing pressure on Natsuki and her asexual husband to have a child, an expectation that she and her husband dismiss as part of society’s “factory.” This time, the unfolding events shift the reader’s sense of reality by blurring real and imagined worlds. Part horror, part allegory, part coming-of-age, it’s a novel that ultimately defies classification.

Catching up with Murata by email, she says, “I myself don’t know how to classify my stories, but I’ll be pleased if they can be thought of as novels that peel away the skin of reality and peek at what’s within. For me, family is a major theme and I’ve been writing about it continually ever since I made my debut as a writer.”

Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori, whose work on “Convenience Store Woman” was shortlisted for the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards, says that “preserving the initial reading experience” of Murata’s latest novel was her primary goal. “‘Earthlings’ completely drew me in,” she says, “and I compulsively kept turning the pages until I was done; it’s not often anymore that a novel does that to me. With everything I translate, I try to keep my experience as a reader in mind, but for this novel, it was especially important.”

Takemori has indeed rendered a bona fide page-turner, but the novel also retains the idiosyncratic lightness of Murata’s distinctive style. “She has such a unique voice and she’s so nonjudgmental of her own characters,” says Takemori. “She presents them and lets the reader decide. Even though the novel says so many dark, important things about society and families, and how they can unknowingly facilitate abuse, it’s all so layered and cleverly revealed.”

As Natsuki, her husband and Yuu struggle to break free from “the factory” of Earthling society, even at its most heavy-handed moments, Murata’s use of repetition and subtle persuasion echoes the psychological playbook of cults, and her critical eye on society is sharp.

The end is devastating. Approach “Earthlings” at your own risk.

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