“All the Lovers of the Night,” the latest English-translated book from Mieko Kawakami, the
acclaimed author of international bestseller “Breasts and Eggs,” questions the meaning of
happiness by exploring Japanese society through the eyes of Fuyuko Irie, an introverted and socially awkward mid-level 34-year-old professional proofreader working in a nondescript publishing house. Ostracized and bullied by her coworkers due to her avoidance of social company gatherings or outings, she decides to quit her job to become a full-time freelance proofreader when the opportunity arises from another publishing firm.
Though Fuyuko enjoys working remotely, she gets bouts of social anxiety and depression which makes her feel self-doubt and melancholy. After submitting a finished manuscript one day, she feels radiant and light, but as she ventures out into the busy streets of Shinjuku, her inflated happiness shrivels and she feels lost and helpless. As she wanders, she gets roped into donating blood, and during that ordeal, she gets a glimpse of her reflection in a window looking “not sad, or tired, but the dictionary definition of a miserable person.”
Feeling disconnected, isolated and useless, she starts drinking alcohol to relax and to escape from herself. She soon becomes an alcoholic, carrying bottles of sake or beer in her tote bag. In one of her tipsy stupors at home, she comes across a pile of pamphlets she had accumulated, and as she sifts through them, she comes across one that is a course catalog for a culture center in the Shinjuku area. She decides to register for a course, and after a series of tragicomic events, becomes acquainted with Mitsutsuka, a high school physics teacher who took courses there. Through it all, readers will learn about Fuyuko’s own traumatic past.
When Kawakami wrote this story back in 2010, she incorporated many trending topics that
proliferated Japanese society at the time, such as its tendency to frown upon unstable types of work (freelancing) and the relationship status of women and how that defined their success in life. As she did her research and talked to various people, she wanted to give voice to a character and point of view not often seen in books and wondered how these characters find happiness. “In these cruel and difficult situations…as you are living within your life, how can you find happiness and how can you find hope?” Kawakami said in an interview with Ruth Ozeki through Europa Editions.
Kawakami speaks from experience. She has also lived an unconventional and difficult life.
Growing up in Osaka, she did not have books to read at home and started working at 14 in a factory to help the family. Through the difficulty, Kawakami found ways to lighten the burden of living by finding beauty in even the simplest things. She also used Osaka humor—laughing even when you are sad or crying—to help get through tough times with her family.
“So even in very difficult and extreme situations, it’s always possible to find that moment of
beauty, that light, that overwhelming moment when you can almost transcend yourself in a way,” she said in her interview with Ruth Ozeki. “Even since I was a child—even times which were extremely difficult—there’s always been that one moment of beauty that you can find.”
This story is not just about Fuyuko’s journey on finding meaningful connections; it is also social commentary about women’s various roles in society. Perhaps it is because Fuyuko lacks an interconnected social network, but she gets a firsthand account of what gendered roles and expectations are and the outcomes of these things from people who don’t feel threatened by her to give honest reflections about their work and their choices in life.
“All the Lovers in the Night” will have readers cheering for Fuyuko as she works hard to get past her fears and insecurities to become happier and more fulfilled in her life. It is a stark look at one woman’s emotionally painful journey to overcome her past. While depressing for some, it will be refreshing for others as Fuyuko’s feelings, experiences and observations might resonate with their own.
“I don’t write novels to show people what Japan is like,” said Kawakami in an interview with
“Vogue Singapore.” “For me, probing the singularity of things is what gets me into narrative
ideas. When I talk about real people, I’m referring to the singularity of individuals and time.That uniqueness runs through every single moment and every single person. What I’m trying to do is express that singularity in words as much and as deeply as I can. For me, that’s what makes real people who they are.”