Year 2022: 30 Books

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

By David Varno

From the first page of Japanese writer Kawakami’s third novel published in translation from Bett and Boyd (after Breasts and Eggs and Heaven), the reader is swept under by a powerful wave. It’s her narrator’s consciousness, containing an unforgettable interiority marked by singular perceptions. 

Fuyuko Irie, 34, works as a proofreader for a Tokyo publisher. She began the job shortly after college, when she trained herself not to get absorbed by her assignments (“the goal is to read as little as possible,” she explains). The job is well-suited to people who don’t mind being alone, a state she’s come to accept, though an abject sadness occasionally swells to the surface. After years of conditioning herself into a blank slate, though, it’s hard for her to turn back. A lonely routine fills the space between work hours. After a simple spaghetti dinner at home, she has nothing else to do: no friends, no interest in music or reading, and no ability to watch TV without looking for errors in the subtitles.

To take control of her life, Fuyuko quits her job and goes freelance. She starts meeting a colleague for drinks, a vivacious woman her own age named Hijiri, and soon falls into a habit of heavy drinking throughout the day. She meets an older man named Mitsutsuka, and regularly meets him for coffee.

Kawakami depicts Fuyuko’s encounters with Hijiri and Mitsutsuka as achingly awkward in tone. Asked to tell them about herself, Fuyuko can barely summon a few short sentences. But inside, unspoken, there’s so much more. She’s exceptionally perceptive of Hijiri, who turns out to have her own lonely side (Hijiri, sharing details of her dating life, “made it sound like it was somebody else’s life we were talking about”). Later, after Fuyuko realizes she’s in love with Mitsutsuka, she describes their long silences during phone calls: “It was like I was tracing another person’s death with my finger.”

These staggering, poetic blasts from Fuyuko’s vast and turbulent inner sea conjure one of the most distinctive and moving portraits of loneliness in recent memory. Perhaps it’s because they don’t feel like signposts identifying well-worn themes, or like attempts by the author to make her character “relatable,” that dreadful token of commercial fiction. Rather, everything Kawakami writes feels like it belongs particularly to Fuyuko. No one else would think or feel or do things in quite the same way. And that is Kawakami’s greatest triumph. 

Read more about All the Lovers in the Night (Europa Editions):

Jo Hamya, New York Times

Hamilton Cain, Washington Post

Alison Fincher, Asian Review of Books

Starred Kirkus review

Starred Publishers Weekly review

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