Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings is a dark novel about what it takes to survive and how to rebel as an outsider in Japanese society, with black comedy and shocking scenes that will likely divide readers. The book opens with eleven-year-old Natsuki, who believes she can do magic thanks to the help of a hedgehog toy from another planet and spends her summers with her cousin Yuu, who believes that he’s an alien who will one day find a spaceship and leave Earth. Underneath, the realities of their lives, including mental, physical, and sexual abuse, linger, and the cousins are parted. When Natsuki grows up, she lives in a marriage of convenience, trying to hide her past trauma, but she and her husband seek to escape what they call the Factory, or the regimented society expecting people to become good workers and have children, and to leave this behind, they are reunited with Yuu, to take whatever steps are necessary.

This is a novel about trauma, but not necessarily in a redemptive way: instead, it is a look at surviving trauma and defying societal norms in ways which may seem shocking, horrifying, or ridiculous. Murata uses this to make the book deeply uncomfortable at times, which works well to get across how hard it is for Natsuki to survive and escape in different ways, and this is tempered with a kind of black comedy, particularly around the ways the main characters frame themselves as magical or alien, especially as the novel builds to its conclusion. Particularly the earlier chapters around Natsuki’s childhood can be difficult to read due to the abuse she faces and the ways her coping mechanisms and trauma are framed (the later part of the book has more body horror than abuse), so it’s definitely a book for people to go into aware of some of the content warnings.

Gripping and horrifying in ways similar to other novels, Earthlings cleverly combines the fantastical with the terrible to explore effects of childhood trauma and the desire to escape from the society you see yourself trapped in. It’s not a light read, but it has a feeling of a cult favourite, whilst also looking at the complexity of mental health and survival.