fri 19/07/2024

Mieko Kawakami: All the Lovers in the Night review - the raw relatability of loneliness | reviews, news & interviews

Mieko Kawakami: All the Lovers in the Night review - the raw relatability of loneliness

Mieko Kawakami: All the Lovers in the Night review - the raw relatability of loneliness

A sumptuous, subtle novel on darkness and hope

The intimacy of Kawakami's writing reaches new heights© Ryohei Tsukada

Mieko Kawakami is the champion of the loner. Since achieving immense success in the UK with her translated works, she has become an indie fiction icon for her modern, visceral depictions of characters who exist on the fringes of Japanese society. Kawakami’s latest novel to be translated into English by Sam Bett and David Boyd not only cements her reputation for giving voice to the quieter souls of this world, but also sees the intimacy of her writing reach new heights.

All the Lovers in the Night is one of those novels that hangs together so delicately that it’s difficult to discern its overall design; upon finishing it, all you are left with are questions. At heart, though, it is a love letter to finding self-worth and a turbid telling of what it means when our inner loner is finally brave enough to step into the light.

The novel follows Fuyoko Irie, a talented proofreader who exchanges the snide politics of her office job for a freelance role in the peace of her own home. Already shy, Fuyoko’s solitude causes her to retreat further into her own mind. Weekends are spent swigging from flasks of beer and sake. Yet she cannot avoid human connection: an unexpected friendship with a stranger leads to late night café dates, whilst phone calls with her copy editor evolve into personal conversations. Gradually, she is forced to challenge her impulse to be alone, reckon with the trauma of her past and open herself up to the possibility of a life lived with love.

ALL THE LOVERS IN THE NIGHTKawakami’s loner is fragile and beautifully written. Fuyoko is frustratingly passive – almost pitiable at times – and yet painfully loveable as she reveals “there was no way I could be any more alone… there was nothing here that I could reach out and touch. Nothing that would call my name.”

Kawakami’s origins as a poet melt into the prose of the novel. Fuyoko’s reflections on her coffee dates with Mitsusuka are particularly moving, her character noting: “The overwhelming light of day has left us, and the remaining half draws on everything it has to keep the world around us bright.” Night-time seems the perfect analogy for Fuyoko, who prefers to exist apart from the waking world, yet still needs light, hope and connection to exist.

Darkness is both a disguise and a space for freedom for Fuyoko and Mitsusuka to wonder about everything from music to the mysteries of physics, asking “Why is the night made up entirely of light?”. For me, such symbiosis of character and setting is what makes this novel one of Kawakami’s best translated works to date.

Of course, we’re 10 years behind Japanese readers, who had the pleasure of reading this novel in 2011. Kawakami has been receiving awards for her fiction in her home country for over a decade. It’s just as well that this side of the world is finally catching up. Heaven, written in 2009 and translated by Bett and Boyd into English in 2021, was shortlisted for this year’s International Booker prize.

Sumptuous prose about lonely people is familiar writing territory. In Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami’s first full-length novel to be translated into English, we met three women grappling with difficult gendered experiences, from body insecurities to raising a child alone. Heaven followed the lives of teenage outcasts and the perseverance of their friendship in the face of relentless bullying.

Kawakami’s championing of the loner figure seems an attempt to give life to a loneliness felt by us all, whether we are “loners” or not. All the Lovers in the Night unfurls as a delightfully raw and relatable journey of self-discovery – until the loner is no longer lonely, just simply on their own.

Despite not winning the International Booker Prize, Kawakami is clearly still doing remarkable things for international fiction. I sit poised for her next book.


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