Review: ALL THE LOVERS IN THE NIGHT by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2022)

It’s always a happy event for me when there’s a new Mieko Kawakami novel to read. This is the third of her books that Picador have released in the past three years: Breasts and Eggs was published in Bett and Boyd’s translation in 2020, followed by Heaven in 2021. Like Kawakami’s earlier novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawaii and published by Pushkin Press), the main characters in Breasts and Eggs and Heaven are on the margins of society in varying ways: Breasts and Eggs focused on the commodification of women’s bodies as either sexualised or reproductive, and followed the experience of three women who did not fit into conventional social stereotypes. Heaven was a painful exposure of high school bullying and the horrific damage (both physical and emotional) it can cause to those who are excluded and humiliated. In all of Kawakami’s work, human relationships are what drives the narrative forward, and All the Lovers in the Night is no exception. Yet this is not to say that there is anything formulaic or repetitive about Kawakami’s work: on the contrary, each book is entirely original and shines a light on a very different kind of alienation.

In All the Lovers in the Night the protagonist is Fuyuko, a lonely woman in her thirties. When we meet her, she is introverted to the point of isolation: she works as a proof reader in a big company, but is alone amidst a crowd of colleagues. When she shifts to freelance work, the new rhythm both suits her and compounds her loneliness. In the course of the narrative we discover why she is so closed in on herself – or, at least, we are given insight into traumatic experiences from her past that allows us to draw certain conclusions. It is a reluctant friendship with Hijiri, a vibrant colleague in the publishing industry, that becomes a lifeline for Fuyuko. At first she is unsure why someone so lively would show an interest in her, but the unravelling of Hijiri’s own insecurities as the two women grow closer is one of the most interesting parts of Fuyuko’s story.

As in Breasts and Eggs, there are some acute observations about being a woman: in particular, the emphasis here is on “success” for a woman being defined in terms of procreation, and the move towards a conventional social role. In a world of self-help books that decree the vital things that must be done by the age of 35 (all of which fall into traditional tropes of what constitutes personal and professional “success”), Fuyuko feels entirely out of place. That Fuyuko’s work is in the publishing industry also offers some pertinent reflections on writers and writing: is a writer’s “greatness” defined by how many books they sell, or by whether or not they win prizes? And are either of these things truly a marker of literary quality? As with so many of Kawakami’s most interesting observations, these can almost seem throwaway comments, yet the questioning of gender roles in particular underlines the reasons why Fuyuko remains on the margins of a society she cannot fit into. Yet she sees beauty where others see banality, from everyday objects to the lights that illuminate the night on her birthday each year.

Fuyuko gradually moves from being a teetotaller to an alcoholic: she finds herself unable to face the most basic social interaction without first fortifying herself with sake or beer. Her solitude grows along with her drinking habit, as she closes in on herself more and more, despite her efforts to integrate society in conventional ways. One such effort is a trip to the cultural centre to look at courses she might enrol on, and it is there that she first meets Mitsuksuka. Having drunk too much, she falls asleep in the lobby and wakes to find that her bag has been stolen. Mitsuksuka is nearby, and helps her. This is the catalyst for a series of awkward encounters that move slowly towards friendship, and then to something deeper. I found the dynamic between them uncomfortable at times: Mitsuksuka is older, and takes on a role as teacher to Fuyuko. He opens her mind to physics, giving substance to her obsession with light, but he remains enigmatic, his interest in Fuyuko and the nature of their relationship never entirely evident.

As in Kawakami’s previous novels, the love interests are not glossy heroes (and nor is “love” a simple concept). On the contrary, what she does is far more interesting: this is not about instant attraction, magnetism, or any of those relationship tropes that abound in literature. This is about people who are dismissed as useless, unattractive or inessential connecting with other people who have had similar experiences, and the vulnerability of the characters is what gives the narrative momentum: my no-spoilers policy means I’ll have to hold my tongue here, but I can only recommend that you find out for yourself what becomes of Fuyuko and Mitsuksuka’s relationship.

The translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is every bit as accomplished as I have come to expect their collaboration to be. I particularly admire the way they translate dialogue – as with other of Kawakami’s texts, the dialogue is raw (at times excruciatingly so), and they render this in entirely believable English, without letting us forget that these are Japanese characters. But what stood out for me most were the passages where Fuyuko talks about her pain: these manage to be strikingly eloquent even when delivered with a brevity verging on abruptness, and the ability of both author and translators to express a shattering emotion in just a few words is remarkable.

All the Lovers in the Night is an excellent story, whether or not you have read Kawakami’s other work. If you already love her writing, you won’t be disappointed. If you have yet to discover her, it’s a good place to start (though you probably won’t want to stop there!)

Review copy of All the Lovers in the Night provided by Picador Books. This was my final sponsored review; you can read more about the future directions of the Translating Women blog here.

Leave a Reply