Since challenging Haruki Murakami over his depiction of female characters during a live interview in 2017, Mieko Kawakami has emerged as a literary feminist icon. “Women are no longer content to shut up,” she has said of the pushback against traditional gender roles in Japan.
All the Lovers in the Night, the third of Kawakami’s novels to appear in English in quick succession, follows Breasts and Eggs (2020), winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and Heaven, which was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.
Kawakami was a blogger and a poet before becoming a novelist. Deftly translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, her prose retains the accessibility of a blog, with glimpses of lyricism. “Why is the night made up entirely of light?” marvels the narrator of All the Lovers in the Night. Each year on her birthday, which falls on Christmas Eve, Kawakami’s protagonist takes a walk in the darkness — the only thing that comes to mind that she can do on her own.
Thirty-four-year-old Fuyuko Irie lives in Tokyo, freelancing as a proofreader — “a lonely business, full of lonely people”. Working from home exacerbates her isolation, although she had been shunned by colleagues at her previous office job. She is friendly with Hijiri, her supervisor, but laments that she has “no friends to go out to eat with or to chat with for hours over the phone”.
Even the books that Fuyuko edits provide no solace, as she doesn’t read for meaning: “the first thing they teach you as a proofreader is that you’re not supposed to read the story on the page,” she shares. Catching her reflection in a mirror one day, Fuyuko perceives “the dictionary definition of a miserable person”. Previously a teetotaller, she takes up drinking to develop “the ability to let go of [her] usual self”.
Inspired by the possibilities offered in its course catalogue, Fuyuko goes to a cultural centre to sign up for a class, but is too drunk to do so. There she meets Mitsutsuka, who introduces himself as a physics teacher. The pair become friends, convening weekly at a café to discuss string theory, music and the properties of light. Fuyuko dreams of Mitsutsuka but is terrified of sex: her first and only experience in high school, relayed in a flashback, was non-consensual.
Fuyuko’s attempts to numb herself with alcohol, eventually leading to her spending the better half of her day in bed, bring to mind the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 bestseller My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who embarks on a narcotic hibernation. Both women seek oblivion of the self rather than suicide. (Not for nothing, the piece of music that Mitsutsuka gifts Fuyuko, which she listens to on loop, is Chopin’s “Berceuse”, a lullaby for piano. “Like the night is breathing,” she describes the piece. “Like the sound of melted light.”
Anti-heroines aching for erasure may point to a broader unease. Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing For Less (2020), posits that a modern desire for nothingness stems from overstimulation. Or it may be a reaction to “girl-boss” feminism. “Instead of forcing optimism and self-love down our throats . . . I think feminism should acknowledge that being a girl in this world is really hard,” suggests Audrey Wollen, the Los Angeles-based artist who became known in 2014 for her “Sad Girl Theory”, which reframes sadness as a form of protest.
Fuyuko struggles with the standards of sociability and beauty expected of her. “You’re not one of those natural types, are you?” the glamorous Hijiri asks one evening when she notices that Fuyuko isn’t wearing any make-up. Hijiri is a “go-getter” but acknowledges the double bind for women: “If you make plenty of money, but don’t have any kids, you might get called successful,” she says. “But unless you have kids, no one will ever call you a great woman.” A childhood friend, meanwhile, tells Fuyuko that she should “definitely have some kids” despite complaining of the tedium and sexlessness of her marriage since having children.
By highlighting the inner lives of outsiders, Kawakami’s work takes aim at the social structures of class and gender…
Read the full review online at the Financial Times