Fuyuko Irie is a thirty-four-year-old freelance proofreader from Japan. One of her most defining characteristics, in her opinion, is that she likes to go for a walk once a year on Christmas Eve, her birthday. “But I was sure that no one else could comprehend what made this fun,” she admits, “and I never mentioned it to anyone before. I had no friends to talk to on a regular basis.” There is little else she considers worth knowing about her life. If we trust what she tells us, then she is “[j]ust a miserable woman”—“not sad, or tired, but the dictionary definition of a miserable person.”
Fuyuko narrates Mieko Kawakami’s newest novel, All the Lovers in the Night, insisting that she’s not interesting enough to care about. One could find similarities between her and Keiko Furukura, the main character of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (Grove Press, 2019); they’re both asocial women navigating the patriarchal constraints of modern Japan, but Fuyuko differs because whatever she might tell herself (and, by extension, the reader), she doesn’t want to be alone. The list of things she dislikes about herself is endless and crippling. She struggles greatly with social interaction, relentlessly critiques herself, and often drinks heavily just to get through the day.
One day, while at a local community center, a drunk Fuyuko throws up into her hands and rushes to the nearest bathroom. She bumps into an older man on the way there and is haunted by the idea that she might’ve spilled vomit onto his shoes. That event is the peculiar meet-cute with her soon-to-be love interest, a high school physics teacher named Mitsutsuka. Their first conversation is no less awkward:
“That”—I pointed at his chest pocket—“could be dangerous, if you fell.”
“What could?” the man asked, opening his eyes a little wider.
“Your pocket,” I said, my finger still in midair.
“My pocket could be dangerous?”
“The pens. You could get hurt. If you fell. Your throat.
But Mitsutsuka is unrelentingly kind to Fuyuko, in spite of her social faux pas. This sort of bond is foreign to her, though exciting, and the two begin meeting frequently at a café to talk. Their relationship is sweet, simple, and rather distinct from Fuyuko’s sort-of-friendship with her coworker, Hijiri, who prattles on to her about exes and philosophy and misogyny but leaves little room for Fuyuko to get a word in. Mitsutsuka, though, “not only lent an ear to my silly questions, he even laughed occasionally, as if he was genuinely having a good time.”
Kawakami’s prose is gentle and the pace is lovely. It can be likened to Fuyuko’s solitary walks on her birthday: “It isn’t anything,” she writes, “but it’s so beautiful that I could cry.”
We walk alongside Fuyuko as she rediscovers the joy of human connection and expands her horizons, learning about topics as wide as feminism and as precise as the physics of light. Kawakami’s prose is gentle and the pace is lovely. It can be likened to Fuyuko’s solitary walks on her birthday: “It isn’t anything,” she writes, “but it’s so beautiful that I could cry.”
But Fuyuko is not fully honest with us—or, at least, she omits quite a bit. We eventually learn of a sexual trauma she experienced in adolescence, the partial cause of her social withdrawal. Her abuser’s last words to her are branded somewhere inside her:
“You can’t speak or think for yourself. You’re just going through the motions. I have no idea what you’re thinking . . . I guess maybe you aren’t thinking at all. It’s like there’s nothing in there. Just being around you really pisses me off.”
Kawakami, whose 2008 novel Breasts and Eggs was recently published in English to great acclaim, takes care to show us the lasting impact of this ordeal. Even now, in her midthirties, Fuyuko believes herself devoid of feelings. “Had I ever chosen anything?” she asks herself. “Had I made some kind of choice that led me here?” She finds it hard to tell anyone no, shies away from physical touch, and feels disgusted each time she sees her reflection. When Hijiri lets her borrow a few pieces of clothing, she tries it all on, and, imagining she’s someone else (a more stable woman, perhaps, one who understands opinions and relationships, who doesn’t feel sick at the notion of relating to another), she goes to sleep.
The crux of Fuyuko’s relationship with Mitsutsuka is boundary setting. No one in her life is as patient with her as he is. He’s gone through years of training to avoid and recognize sexual harassment, he explains, and urges her to let him know if she feels uncomfortable at any moment. When she does, it’s all right. There are no consequences, only acceptance, distance when she requests it and closeness when she feels brave enough to try. Addressing her alcohol dependency, he assures her, “. . . No matter who you are when you come here, Fuyuko, I really do enjoy your company.” Scenes between them are touching, even healing, to read. On the first night she urges him to touch her, he does, holding her hand as she cries, and that is enough.
At no point in All the Lovers in the Night are there grand gestures of love, nor is there a palpable turning point where Fuyuko realizes her trauma is behind her. It is a book about small, almost unnoticeable victories, like standing up for oneself, making a friend, or touching another person’s skin. These actions remind Fuyuko that she does have thoughts of her own—so many, in fact, that they overwhelm her. She is no Keiko Furukura; she aches to be seen and understood and even loved by others. On one occasion, she goes to a salon and, perhaps for the first time in her entire life, feels beautiful:
As I turned my face to see myself from different angles, I realized how different I looked, and set the little mirror down to look at my reflection in the giant mirror on the wall. I felt an emotion bubbling up from deep inside and if I had to give the feeling a name, it would be giddiness.
I was deeply moved by Fuyuko’s cathartic journey and Kawakami’s wise rendering of it, and I expected the novel to end on a peaceful, pleasant note. Instead, its conclusion was bewildering and frustrating enough to make me whisper “What?!” out loud, grimacing at my wall for a minute or two. All the Lovers in the Night ends in a way neither sentimental nor satisfying. It feels like a betrayal, a sensation I can’t believe wasn’t Kawakami’s intention. When one looks at the story’s arc from above, it shows a tentative upward crawl toward hope and then, almost out of nowhere, a brutal decline—the very way sexual assault can devastate a life in a matter of minutes.
This subtle, authoritative book offers important insights and could be a welcome companion for survivors, but it offers no answers (easy or otherwise). A relationship, for instance, cannot fully heal past traumas, and a great book cannot provide total catharsis, but both bring something—a momentary calm, a jumping-off point for further growth. Fuyuko learns that she is the person she must depend on the most, and with that, the person she must love the most: She is a thirty-four-year-old freelance proofreader from Japan who likes to go for a walk once a year on Christmas Eve, her birthday. She loves books, conversations with friends, and, as a child, used to dream of being a lion. She is more than just a “miserable person”; when she sees her newly made-up face in that salon mirror, she says she looks like a “strong-willed individual,” which she is. She always was.