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All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami book review

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Written at the dawn of German Romanticism, Novalis’s “Hymns to the Night” opens with a paean to day and then an abrupt pivot: “I turn to the holy, unspeakable, secretive Night.” There’s an exuberance, a literal breathlessness as the poet moves beyond the Enlightenment to seek inspiration in the darker, intuitive currents of our psyches, a precursor to Freud’s model of the unconscious. We may have evolved as a diurnal species, but at night we’re our most human, meandering among dreams and desires.

Mieko Kawakami’s ‘Heaven’ follows a bullied boy searching for meaning

I thought of Novalis and Freud as I avidly read Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night,” her engrossing, fine-boned new novel, deftly translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Night, for this author, is an uncanny space where anything can happen, and narrator Fuyuko Irie’s preface unfurls as evocative fragments: “The red light at the intersection, trembling as if wet, even though it isn’t raining. Streetlight after streetlight. Taillights trailing off into the distance. The soft glow from the windows. … Why is the night so beautiful? Why does it shine the way it does? Kawakami drops the Novalis-style lyricism immediately, though: The 21st century demands a flattened, deadpan voice, as Fuyuko tries to liberate herself, in fits and starts, from the miasma of her life de ella.

Thirty-four years old, a freelance copy editor hunkered down in her Tokyo apartment, Fuyuko plows through manuscripts efficiently, pencil in hand. There’s no boyfriend, no real friends. She doesn’t drink. She’s had sex exactly once, as a high school student. Beyond scattershot interaction with her supervisor, Hijiri, she’s isolated. (Kawakami’s portrait of the vibrant, calculating Hijiri, Fuyuko’s foil de ella, is one of the novel’s many subtle pleasures.) Gerbil-like, Fuyuko runs a brisk pace on the treadmill of her routine de ella, without regard to much else.

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The routine fails when Hijiri introduces her to sake and beer. Fuyuko realizes that her asceticism has masked hidden hurts. A glimpse of her reflection in a store window convinces her she needs a change: “The image of myself that floated to the surface, tinged with blue against a backdrop of the signs, walls, and windows of the nearby buildings, looked absolutely miserable. … The space around my head was wild with baby hair or stray hairs that had come free. My shoulders sagged, and the skin around my eyes was sunken. My arms and legs looked stubby while my neck looked long and skinny. The tendons around my collarbone and throat stuck out.” She descends into a boozy netherworld that’s part existentialist drama, part sci-fi horror.

As in her earlier acclaimed books, “Breasts and Eggs” and “Heaven” (a finalist for this year’s International Booker Prize), Kawakami approaches the body clinically, a forensic examiner with her protagonist on the slab. Fuyuko’s physical self is both earth and air: one minute she’s wasted and vomiting in a bathroom — no writer evokes acid reflux as brilliantly as Kawakami — and the next she’s floating above her impressions of her, mind wiped clean.

Desperate for normalcy, Fuyuko considers enrolling in a class at a local university, where she meets a physicist, Mitsutsuka, who, like a character out of a Hitchcock film, materializes in her vulnerable moments. She confesses her obsession with light and dark; he tells her what he knows (and doesn’t) about photons and reflectivity. She’s a hot mess, but he’s intrigued; they strike up a cautious, delicate relationship, which deepens into geek love. Each Thursday, they meet for coffee at a cafe. Like a tender shoot, Fuyuko leans toward him: “I thought about the kinds of pens that Mitsutsuka carried in the pocket of his shirt, the shapes of all the different caps, then thought about his broad forehead and the way his hair swept off to the sides,” Kawakami writes. “The scar at the corner of his eye, a flake of dead skin that fluttered on his lip when he breathed… things I never imagined I’d remember sprang up and multiplied like wildflowers, growing silently and with incredible speed, filling my eyes and ears and heart.”

Kawakami gradually reveals the woman beneath the cipher, as Fuyuko is forced to confront the specter of Mizuno, the aloof teenager who took her virginity in a brutal encounter. She recalls: “I wanted to pull away, to throw off Mizuno’s arm and make up some excuse. . . I could almost hear my body cracking as it shrank. … It was a strange sensation, like my core had been twisted up as tightly as humanly possible, but also like I was being crushed to pieces.” There’s no room for redemption here. The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the claustrophobia of our lives; “All the Lovers in the Night” adroitly plays off collective dissonance and sorrow. And with this consummate novel, Kawakami’s star continues to rise, pulsing against a night that’s anything but holy.

Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and contributing book editor at Oprah Daily. He lives in Brooklyn.

All the Lovers in the Night

By Mieko Kawakami; translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

Europa Editions. 224 pages $28

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