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All the Lovers in the Night

All the Lovers in the Night
Mieko Kawakami
Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Pan Macmillan, $32.99

Internationally acclaimed Japanese author Meiko Kawakami writes distinctively about urban loneliness.

Fuyuko Irie, the main character in All the Lovers in the Night, is in her 30s. She’s a freelance proofreader, lives alone, and has little reason to leave her unit in Tokyo. Then one Christmas Eve – which is also her birthday – she decides to go for a walk in the night air and it stirs something inside of her.

A hard worker, Fuyuko takes on more and more manuscripts from Hijiri, the publishing manager. Hijiri and Fuyuko occasionally meet up in public for work and then also for companionable reasons.

Hijiri is as gungho about sucking the marrow out of life as Fuyuko is reticent.

Fuyuko’s hesitancy is linked to her struggles to express herself. At times she speaks so softly she can’t be heard. It’s awkward and painful.

Although she’s never been a drinker, she decides to try it – hoping it will loosen her up. Not long after her first tipple, she is drinking frequently to bolster her courage in social situations. She also drinks at home alone.

Fuyuko wonders about doing a course of some sort to shake her life into a different shape. At the college, on enrolment day, she is very drunk and she meets an older man named Mitsutsuka who is kind to her. Not long after, they meet a second time, and a tentative friendship is ignited – which gives Fuyuko something regular outside of her proofreading work to look forward to.

The pair meet each week in a coffee shop and talk about ordinary everyday matters. Even though the conversation remains light, Fuyuko feels both seen and listened to, an experience she has not encountered much in the past.

In fact, a flashback to the way a boy treated her in high school goes some way to explaining why she seems so cautious about revealing herself.

Being a proofreader also means other people’s words and ideas are foregrounded – obscuring her own position on things.

Ultimately, All the Lovers in the Night, surveys what gives us the courage to speak up, to speak in our own voice and to live into our own truths. It acknowledges that the catalyst for each of us will be different.

It returns to some of the same issues Kawakami probed in her much-lauded novel Breasts and Eggs. Issues like: the importance or unimportance of sex in relationships; the varied ways women choose to live their lives; the burden of being a mother and the myth that motherhood provides the ultimate fulfilment for a woman; and the subtlety and the lack of subtlety of words to convey deep feelings.

Unfortunately for my money she doesn’t probe these themes as successfully or with the same mastery as she did in Breasts and Eggs.

I also confess I didn’t really understand the pivotal incident that meant Fuyuko would no longer spend time with Mitsutsuka – and I felt Kawakami may have manufactured the rift to force a climax and resolution. (Did Mitsutsuka’s lie make his split with Fuyuko inevitable? Really?)

In Kawakami’s work there is definitely a stark, emotional honesty about modern life that I admire but which I don’t always find interesting. She is also chillingly adept at conveying the (at times) stiltedness of sex and intimate encounters.

I can see how the stiff characters and forced conversations in All the Lovers in the Night bear resemblance to the actual disconnections that can hamper human relationships – but I can’t say it makes for comfortable reading.

Perhaps, though, that’s the point. The characters are uncomfortable because people’s discomfort is real. People are grating, gracious and everything in between. Relationships are fraught, boring and get fractured for both logical and unfathomable reasons. Words can serve us as we chart our way in the world but also trip us up, get in the way.

People are alone and it echoes. Kawakami’s transceiver is at the ready, picking up the jittering waves.

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