Having previously read and enjoyed Convenience Store Woman, it wasn’t a hard decision to pick up Earthlings. As with the previous novel, this is a story about someone who finds society quiet alienating. Indeed our protagonist, Nutsuki handles life initially by imagining she has magical powers.
Beginning as a girl, we follow Nutsuki’s life as the family go on their annual summer trip to visit her grandparents in the mountains. It’s a big family gathering with lots of cousins also in attendance, and each year Nutsuki looks forward to meeting her cousin and soulmate. He believes that he’s actually an alien from another planet, just biding his time until he can find his way to a spaceship home. Together they get “engaged” and then “married” – even though they only get to see one another once a year when the families gather.
But Nutsuki’s childhood is not a pleasant one. Her mother finds her hard to deal with, preferring her sister. But worse is her “cram school” teacher, who is a paedophile and grooms Nutsuki. He of course tells her not to tell anyone what’s happening, and she is only able to cope by trying to have out of body experiences.
And then something defining happens that changes things.
We fast-forward to her as a young woman. She’s now married, but it’s a marriage of convenience with a man who likewise wants a “wife” to keep friends and family off his back. He doesn’t enjoy any kind of physical contact. Between the two of them, they consider themselves escapees from the “Factory” – the mindset that society places on everyone. Get a job – get married – have children – rinse and repeat.
The ramifications of what happened in Nutsuki’s childhood have long lasting consequences, and things will in due course, take some remarkable turns.
This is a novel about conformity and consequences. I found it remarkably moving, if astonishingly difficult in places. The helplessness of being an outside in a world that values the orthodoxy over just about everything else is beautifully captured.
While I won’t spoil anything here, I will say that the ending is jaw-dropping, although at no point do we not really believe that the characters will do what they end up doing. I was left actually shattered by this book. At times funny; at times gruelling – it made a big impact on me.
It definitely won’t be for everyone, and if you’re not sure, I would start with Convenience Store Woman before you move onto this. But I thought it was masterful!