Mieko Kawakami’s latest work All the Lovers in the Night is a clinical puzzle which examines the existential crisis that young professional women today face while coping with the pressures of urban lives. But it is a puzzle that you have to piece together without the larger picture in hand — the author does not lay out conventional plot points in the form of a narrated story.
Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, the narrative is a slow burn, the kind that only reveals itself almost surreptitiously through touchpoint like body image issues, consent, slut shaming, mental health concerns, and alcohol dependence. And while the book is set in Japan, Kawakami’s story is really about women anywhere flailing, but fighting to carve a place for themselves.
All the Lovers in the Night starts with Fuyuko Irie, a young woman in her early 30s, who works in a publishing house as a proof-reader. Fuyuko’s life is dreary and exacting. Her work involves poring over manuscripts and fact-checking them; and it isn’t work that she does out of passion. Social niceties or socializing aren’t for her, let alone any romantic relationships. While her colleagues have a ‘life outside’ of work, she doesn’t. Hijiri, a work acquaintance is the only person who comes close to being Fuyuko’s friend with the former watching out for her in her career choices. The only thing that holds beauty for Fuyuko is watching the night lights on Christmas Eve, coincidentally also her birthday.
Through the narrative, Kawakami touches on the reality of women’s lives in Japan today, where an overarching patriarchal demand on how women ought to be in society has led to significant push-back. But what she does emphatically is to bring to light the universal phenomenon of how women today continue to be slotted into categories: those who can juggle career with family and children; those who take upon themselves the task of spreading or rather, forcing their conditioned cheer on other women.
Fuyuko leads life as if on auto-pilot: she doesn’t consider if she is missing out on any life experiences by choosing to live the way she does. Hijiri is the only one who, even if problematically, tells Fuyuko to dress up, giving her standards to live life by — the rest of their female co workers talk down to Fuyuko, constantly needling her about why she is the way she is. It is through scenes such as these that Kawakami makes her commentary about patriarchy — how it makes women judge and be wary of one another, how it circles them in conflict and makes them unforgiving of each other’s perceived failings. This makes All the Lovers in the Night an engaging read.
In keeping the narrative centred around conversations where Fuyoko is responding with as few words as possible, the author also keeps her narrative clean and shorn of drama. The protagonist’s relationship with Hijiri is a reminder of how power-play seeps in — both consciously and otherwise — into any relationship: Hijiri projects herself as the one taking charge and providing a sort of purpose to Fuyuko when she gives her clothes, shoes and accessories to wear.
Fuyuko’s life, one that she finds satisfactory and one that really only revolves around her work, goes into a tail spin when she starts to drink beer and sake heavily. We are none the wiser about why things have come to this — we only see that she feels ‘lighter’ and is a bit more expressive. She starts going to a cultural centre and meets an older man, Mitsutsuka with whom she begins gradual conversations. Do they bond? Is there a relationship of any kind? With Kawakami, you aren’t going to get any definite answer — a lot happens between the lines, like Fuyuko recollecting an incident from her younger days, when she was sexually assaulted by a classmate who shames and blames her, saying she had asked for it when she’d agreed to come over to his place.
Is the Fuyuko we read about affected by this incident? Would she have been any different if this had never happened? All we know is Fuyuko has never had sex since. These are not spoilers — for the real essence of All the Lovers in the Night lies in how readers individually engage with the thought-process of each of the characters.
There is an unmistakable intensity to Kawakami’s works. Her prose is filled with a vague, poetic sadness and the loneliness of those who don’t conform. All the Lovers in the Night is a disconcerting book in parts, but it is one that will leave you with a lot to think about.
Chitra Ahanthem is a Delhi-based journalist.