‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami (Review)

Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami’s third full-length work in English, Heaven, was recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, but before we get to find out whether she’ll be taking home a big cheque and a lump of crystal, there’s the small matter of the arrival of another of her books on the scene.  This one takes a different approach to Heaven, but it does cover similar themes, with a withdrawn protagonist doing their best to make it through the day without suffering too much.  It’s out today (in Australia, at least), and it’s another book that will undoubtedly find an appreciative audience – let’s see what it’s all about…

*****
All the Lovers in the Night (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, review copy courtesy of Picador Australia) is the story of Fuyuko Irie, a proof-reader in her mid-thirties.  The early chapters describe how she quit her old job at a small press and started out as a freelancer working form home, and while it might not sound like the most exciting of occupations, for someone like Fuyuko who prefers a bit of peace and quiet, it seems to be the perfect choice.

Which is not to say her life is perfect – far from it.  In fact, early on in the novel, Fuyuko has an epiphany, brought about by seeing her reflection in a window:

The image of myself that floated to the surface, tinged with blue against a backdrop of the signs, walls, and windows of the nearby buildings, looked absolutely miserable.  Not sad, or tired, but the dictionary definition of a miserable person.
pp.47/8 (Picador, 2022)

It’s a sudden realisation that leads to a long overdue breakdown, and as her defensive façade crumbles to pieces, she begins a downward spiral into depression and drinking, wondering what the point of her miserable life is.  Yet this revelation also marks the start of a new phase of her life, especially when she meets Mitsutsuka, an older man, by chance at a local cultural centre.  As the two get closer, Fuyuko starts to think that her life doesn’t have to be so miserable after all…

After the focus on schoolkids in Heaven, All the Lovers in the Night marks a return to the adult concerns of Breasts and Eggs, albeit with a very different protagonist.  Fuyuko is a woman who hides herself away, keeping in minimal contact with the outside world.  She works from home, there’s no mention of family, and there’s no sign of any real friends as such, a fact she’s well aware of:

As I passed below the haloes of the green and red traffic signals, I was taken by this strange view of the evening, the city streets full of people – people waiting, the people they were waiting for, people out to eat together, people going somewhere together, people heading home together.  I allowed my thoughts to settle on the brightness filling their hearts and lungs, squinting as I walked along and counted all the players of this game that I would never play. (p.86)

At the age of thirty-four, there’s little sign of all that changing, and she’s seemingly resigned to her lonely fate.

It’s a chance encounter with Mitsutsuka, a high-school teacher in his fifties, that changes this, gradually raising what little hope she has of a good life.  He’s a quiet man himself, someone Fuyuko can gradually open up to, and their weekly meetings in a café are the basis for a very slow-burning friendship/relationship.  Mitsutsuka proves to be rather passive, never pushing Fuyuko, meaning it’s up to her to make the next step, if she wants to, and the reader will be there urging her to pluck up the courage to do so.

This gentle meeting of minds is what All the Lovers in the Night revolves around, and it’s a scenario J-Lit fans might be familiar with.  There are definite echoes here of Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, or Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (AKA The Briefcase), in the way in which a woman seemingly left behind by society finds a chance at love with a kind, older man.  As in the books mentioned above, you doubt the relationship is a lasting one, but while Mitsutsuka is around, Fuyuko learns that her life doesn’t have to be an endless string of joyless days.

Kawakami’s too good a writer to simply depict a drifting love affair, though, and she focuses just as much on Fuyuko’s drab life, showing how she lives from day to day, what she does and, more importantly, what she doesn’t do when she’s alone.  Unsurprisingly, there’s a traumatic event at the root of her issues, one she must confront if she’s to move on, and Kawakami again shows herself capable here of shocking her readers.  As was the case in Heaven, All the Lovers in the Night features a moment that will disturb many, so anyone who can be upset by graphic scenes should proceed with caution.

A further angle to the book comes in the form of a third major character, Hijiri, the liaison at the publishing company Fuyuko freelances for.  She’s the complete opposite to Fuyuko, a beautiful, brash, overconfident man-eater, and she acts as the model of a different path for the quiet proof-reader.  Hijiri encourages Fuyuko to spread her wings, with the pair striking up an unlikely friendship, yet right up until the last couple of chapters, we’re never quite sure how real their friendship is.  Only a final confrontation will reveal whether Hijiri is really helping Fuyuko, or merely taking advantage of her.

All the Lovers in the Night is well-written, engaging and absorbing without ever becoming too saccharine.  It’s confronting in places as Fuyuko starts to fall apart, but it can be beautiful at times, too, particularly when she stops to examine the world around her:

All the lights of the night.  The red light at the intersection, trembling as if wet, even though it isn’t raining.  Streetlight after streetlight.  Taillights trailing off into the distance.  The soft glow from the windows.  Phones in the hands of people just arriving home, and people just about to go somewhere.  Why is the night so beautiful?  Why does it shine the way it does?  Why is the night made up entirely of light? (p.7)

There are several important scenes involving the lights Fuyuko sees on her nocturnal rambles, and her questions come to form an important theme in the novel – surprisingly, we even get some answers.

All the Lovers in the Night is a powerful, moving story of a woman hitting rock-bottom and wondering whether it’s worth trying to make her way to the surface, and I suspect it will be another big success.  Kawakami’s novel follows a woman on a path of self-discovery to see if there’s a chance of a happy ending, even if we’re not quite sure what that might entail.  I won’t reveal that, of course, but what I can tell you is that, just like Fuyuko, you’re likely to enjoy the walk through the Tokyo night, looking up at the stars and the many, many lights…

8 thoughts on “‘All the Lovers in the Night’ by Mieko Kawakami (Review)

  1. Hey Tony—as you read Japanese novels like the ones you listed here, the Kawakamis, Ogawa, Murata Sayaka, “The Woman in the Purple Skirt”, generally speaking, all the ones that land on the Akutagawa-prize list, do you have any theories for what characterizes or unites them? For myself, I don’t put them in the same category as the alienated young woman category that we find everywhere in Anglo cultures. If you have some theories I’d like to hear them, if not, don’t worry about it. I plan on writing about it sometime in the future, & your input would be helpful. Thanks.

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    1. Stephen – What unites them more than anything is that they were translated into English, often for presses that were looking for the next xxx. The Ogawa book I mention here, for example, is very much the outlier from the other, darker books that later appeared! It would be great to see what’s *not* being translated (alas, my Japanese is nowhere near that good…).

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      1. Ha, good answer. And you managed to give it without doing what I would have done, give a cynical take on the political requirement for what that xxx must be!

        If you Tony or anyone else wishes to see behind the veil of translated literature, keep an eye open for subtitled television dramas available online. By a rough guess, I’d say at least 40 percent of them are based on contemporary novels, ones that will never get translated. Many of the better ones read very much like novels, & without any Japanese bookstores in the neighborhood, I use it as a key to the literature. I feel these dramas take us further into the culture than the translated novels available to us, mainly because it’s aimed at the domestic market. Much praise to the subtitle community, whose translations are often excellent, who do their work anonymously & for free.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I get the thing about alienated young women, but god knows we’ve had plenty about alienated young men (I’ve been reading The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner lately) so I’m fine with a few more on the other side to balance things out.

    The quotes are very good and do remind me of Tokyo at night.

    I picked up Breasts and Eggs on kindle recently as it was 99p for some reason, maybe because this is on a shortlist (that seems to happen sometimes). I suspect though I’ll read Heaven or this first.

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