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Mieko Kawakami: すべて真夜中の恋人たち (All the Lovers in the Night)

If you have read other works by Mieko Kawakami, you will know that her protagonists tend to be the sort of people that do not quite fit in. They tend to be loners, with few friends, often only children and with not very good relations with their parents, colleagues and others. This is certainly the case here.

Fuyuko Irie is our heroine/narrator. We learn little about her parents or indeed her childhood. As a child I spent a lot of time asleep or doing nothing. She went to school (My school was geared toward mediocre students, kids who weren’t exactly good or bad at studying) and, initially had no friends, till she became friendly with another loner, Noriko Hayakawa. They talk at school but never meet outside school.

To her surprise she is one day contacted (by phone) by a boy in her class. They talk every week by phone but never at school. In the school holidays, he invites her to his house. It does not go well.

She goes off to college in Tokyo (she lives in Nagano, about 150 miles from Tokyo) but we learn little about her life there. It was a private university in Tokyo that would take me even if my scores were mediocre. And they did.

After university she works as a proofreader for a publisher. She quite enjoys the job but has virtually no contact with her colleagues. Indeed, they mock her as a loner, for having no social life, no boyfriend/husband. She does nothing in the evening. She cannot watch TV or films as she is always correcting the mistakes of the captions. She does not enjoy reading, sport, music or any other pastimes. She has no friends and, apparently, no contact with any relatives. The only time she does something different is when she goes out for a long walk on her birthday. I like to go out on a walk once a year on my birthday, Christmas Eve, in the middle of the night. But I was sure that no one else could comprehend what made this fun, and I had never mentioned it to anyone before. I had no friends to talk to on a regular basis. That was it.

Then she receives a call from a former colleague Kyoko. Kyoko has set up her own agency working with various publishers and she wonders if Fuyuko would like to take on some freelance work. She agrees and does freelance work for a major publisher. Initially she keeps her current job but then goes freelance full-time, with the result that she barely sees anyone. Her only real contact is with Hijiri Ishikawa, who works for the publisher and they gradually develop some sort of relationship. Hijiri is different from Fuyuko. She drinks, parties, has boyfriends (definitely in the plural), is lively and is quite capable of standing up for herself. The two get on fairly well and Fuyuko even goes out drinking (non-alcoholic drinks) with Hijiri. An attraction of opposites or just that Hijiri wanted someone different she could confide in? She insisted that I was fun to be around and laughed to show me that she really meant it, too.

Hijiri is happy to criticise anyone – when you get together with women our age, it’s all they want to talk about. Inner peace, lasting happiness. They can’t get enough of it. She criticises religion, men (of course – I know better than to expect anything from men), her bosses, other women.

While Fuyuko is never going to become like Hijiri, she starts to change. Firstly, she takes up drinking (beer and sake) and enjoys it. I loosened up, as if a pane of glass had been placed between me and my experience. One day, when near Shinjuku (the major shopping area of Tokyo) delivering a manuscript, she decides to go and look at the shops. She is handed a leaflet about a cultural centre where you can seemingly study virtually anything. She decides to take a class but in what? After much ruminating Global Tragedy Traditions wins. Inevitably, it does not go well but she does meet a man there – Mitsutsuka. Slowly – very slowly – they start up a platonic relationship. He is a physics teacher and tells her about physics and, in particular, about light. Both Mitsutsuka and Fuyuko say they are attracted by light and this becomes something of a sub-theme. Both are seemingly lonely and welcome each other’s company but will it work out?

Fuyuko is fairly self-aware. I was so scared of being hurt that I’d done nothing. I was so scared of failing, of being hurt, that I chose nothing. I did nothing and her life seems to be like that, unable to take a decisive step in case it goes wrong, which it does more than once in this book. She is compared to two other women. Firstly, there is Hijiri who is, to some degree, the opposite of Fuyuko. She is lively, drinks, parties, has boyfriends, though is somewhat sceptical about men as a whole, and does not pull her punches. She seems reasonably happy, taking life as it comes and not afraid of getting hurt. Fuyuko, however, is clearly never going to be like Hijiri.

The other comparison is Noriko Hayakawa, her schoolfriend, who pops up again out of nowhere. Noriko offers a somewhat different scenario. She is married with two children but admits to Fuyuko that she and her husband have not had sex since the birth of their second child. She went to the high school reunion (Fuyuko did not) and met a former schoolmate , whom she barely knew at school, and they have started an affair. He is also married. Her husband is also having an affair. Noriko is not surprisingly somewhat sceptical about marriage but still wonders why Fuyuko had not chosen that route.

Fuyuko sums up her life:
I’m all alone, I thought. I’d been on my own for ages, and I was convinced that there was no way I could be any more alone, but now I’d finally realized how alone I truly was. Despite the crowds of people, and all the different places, and a limitless supply of sounds and colours packed together, there was nothing here that I could reach out and touch. Nothing that would call my name. There never had been, and there never would be.

This is, as you can see, a sad book but though Fuyuko’s life is not a happy one, neither are the lives of the other key characters. Hijiri and her flings, Noriko and her not very happy marriage and even the few minor characters we meet do not seem to offer a path to happiness, an alternative for Fuyuko. Indeed all she seem to have, she says, is the light that comes every morning.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Kōdansha
First English translation in 2022 by Europa
Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd