When 34-year-old Fuyuko Irie catches a glimpse of herself in a shop window, the drab and defeated figure she sees reflects her shrunken spirit. The only thing that sparks joy in this sad young woman’s heart is the luminosity of Tokyo at night, its dazzling lights a bitter irony when she considers how the monotony of life has extinguished any glimmer of brightness within herself. In All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, we join Fuyuko as she reaches crisis point and a chance encounter shows her the potential for change.
Admirers of Kawakami should be aware that this novel was published in Japan a decade ago. This is its first outing in English (a wonderfully empathic translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd) and we recognise the author’s hallmark in its emphasis on disquietude and constraint. Here, she relates a tale of metamorphosis, as Fuyuko undertakes an arduous journey towards enlightenment.
A fastidious freelance proofreader, Fuyuko works from home, her tiny apartment witness to her habitual solitude. Her non-working hours are filled with domestic mundanity and an increasing reliance on alcohol. For this young woman who doesn’t read for pleasure, doesn’t like music, and whose first and only sexual encounter was decades ago, saké fills the time nicely between work and bed.
One drunken evening, while flicking through a bunch of leaflets destined for her recycling bin (she finds seven typos), Fuyuko comes across a brochure offering classes at her local community centre. She resolves to go, and it is here that she encounters older man, Mitsutsuka, a physics teacher and fellow introvert.
Their tentative friendship, at first beset by awkward silences, blossoms when Fuyuko asks him to explain the concept of light. His reply is enigmatic.
‘There are lots of kinds of light, but what kind do you like?’
Mitsutsuka is thrilled to impart his scientific knowledge but for him, light is all around us in many guises, both literal and metaphorical. The pair begin to meet regularly in a local café, and as well as discussing wavelengths, spectrums and reflection, Mitsutsuka prompts her to read books and listen to music.
He gives her an album of piano music, and in one lovely scene, Fuyuko listens to a Chopin track on repeat and surrenders herself to its beauty. She waltzes endlessly around her apartment, feeling ‘as if I’d swallowed a nebula from tens of thousands of light years away.’
As she begins to view the world differently, Fuyuko contemplates her life and doesn’t like what she sees. Maybe Mitsutsuka is her lifeline.
This tender and perceptive novel throws up questions around contemporary Japanese womanhood, urban loneliness, and self-determination. Events don’t go to plan, and in order to move forward, Fuyuko must deal with past trauma and the weight of habit. Kawakami’s theme of light swirls throughout the book. Mitsutsuka illuminates, Tokyo glows, and we wait to see if Fuyuko will join them.
An intriguing and memorable read.
All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami is published by