Mieko Kawakami is probably best known for her second novel in translation – Breasts and Eggs. Her third novel to be translated in to English All the Lovers in the Night (also translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) is a deep character piece. The book focusses on a woman who has difficulty forming relationships, following her as she slowly makes tentative, yet always fraught connections.
Fuyuko Irie is a proofreader. She was working for a company but found that she could not acclimatise to work in an office:
At first my coworkers invited me out for dinner or drinks, but I always declined, offering a string of vague excuses, and at some point they stopped asking. Before I knew it, I was left entirely alone.
An opportunity to do some freelance work on the side allows her to leave the company and work entirely from her home. Through this work she forms a connection with Hijiri, the woman who commissions her work. Despite being very different, Fuyuko and Hijiri form a tentative connection, although while she tells Hijiri she does not drink, Fuyuko is secretly an alcoholic. She particularly uses alcohol as a crutch when she goes to meet Mitsutsuka, an older man she meets after an abortive attempt to enrol in an adult education course. As she observes:
Over time, with the aid of just a can of beer, drunk slowly, or a single cup of sake, I developed the ability to let go of my usual self.
Fuyuko is a singular and complex character, one who is aware of her disconnectedness from society. And finds when she tries to connect something prevents her or spoils the relationship, leaving her alone again:
I’d been on my own for ages, and I was convinced that there was no way I could be more alone… Despite the crowds of people, and all the different places, and a limitless supply of sounds and colours packed together, there was nothing here that I could reach and touch.
All The Lovers in The Night is very much reflective of a number of recent novels that have explored the loneliness and disconnect of women in modern Japan. Recently Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt featured a woman who desperately wants to inhabit the life of a gregarious colleague. And Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida revealed a not so perfect world marred by trauma.
Fuyuko is extremely self aware: she understands herself and her limitations. And the narrative is not only how Fuyuko copes with tragedies in her past, or her difficulties connecting with people but how she still manages to find beauty in light and how she is able to make connections that can sustain her. So that in the end, All the Lovers in the Night is not a story of depression but one of resilience, delivered through a complex, sometimes difficult but effective character study.