All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Unlike Breasts and Eggs and Heaven, Ms Ice Sandwich makes for a perfectly breezy read. This short story is narrated by an unnamed boy who is in 4th grade. His mother seems always too busy to pay attention to him and his elderly grandmother is dying. Unlike the protagonist of Heaven, the narrator in Ms Ice Sandwich seems to feel at ease at school and amongst his peers, in particular, a girl nicknamed Tutti. However, the person our protagonist is most drawn to is ‘Ms Ice Sandwich’, the woman who prepares sandwiches at the counter in his local supermarket. Ms Ice Sandwich, who is cool and seemingly unaffected by her surroundings, possess the kind of customer service skills that rival my own (ie. poor). Our boy, who is fascinated by her blue eyelids, her eyes, her face, and her aloofness, purchases sandwiches from her just so he can observe her more closely. His crush on her was very sweet. The casual tone of his narration, which often emphasised his age and naïveté, made his voice all the more authentic. His friendship with Tutti made for some very funny and endearing scenes, their film session in particular (that bit with Tutti replicating a certain sequence was a real gem).

While the story did have the usual amount of navel-gazing I have come to expect in a work by Kawakami, here it didn’t feel out of place or unnecessary. If anything, it effectively conveys our narrator’s feelings (his crush on Ms Ice Sandwich, his sadness over his grandmother) and youth.
If you are looking for a quick and uplifting tale of first love you should definitely consider giving Ms Ice Sandwich a try.

my rating: ★★★½

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Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

A few weeks ago I read Mieko Kawakami’s acclaimed Breasts and Eggs and suffice to say that I was not a fan. While Heaven was clearly written by the same author of Breasts and Eggs (both novels implement similar imagery and even use the same metaphor comparing the legs of a young girl to poles) I was able to appreciate it a lot more.
In spite of its brevity Heaven is by no means an easy-going story, in fact, it often verges on being Misery Porn™: large chunks of the narrative depict in minute detail the bullying our fourteen-year-old protagonist is subjected to. The novel raises some interesting questions about bullying and nonconformity. Why do some become perpetrators while others are victims? Should our main character respond to the deluge of abuse he receives from his classmates? Why do the other boys in the class torment him? Is it because of his appearance?
While quite a few of the discussions between the teenage characters did not come across as all that convincing (they expressed themselves in a way that seemed far older or that suggested a worldliness that went at odds with their experiences so far) I still found myself engaged in the narrative.
There are a lot of scenes that verge on being gratuitous: we get painfully detailed descriptions of our MC being beaten, humiliated, and harassed. His friendship with Kojima, a classmate who is bullied by the female students, provided some welcome respite from the sections relating the bullying. The two bond quickly, and in spite of their attempts not to discuss school and the way they are treated by other students, they do eventually confined in one another. Kojima’s view of the whole bullying ‘thing’ while by no means healthy enables her to make ‘sense’ of her circumstances.
As with Breasts and Eggs we have characters giving seemingly endless monologues that last pages at the time. While I did not mind learning more about Kojima, her home life, and her peculiar philosophy, I did not care one bit about Momose’s spiel towards the end of the novel. The narrative seemed intent on making him seem mysterious and mature but I thought him shallow. He did not really come across as a credible fourteen-year-old, more like a parody of the worldly teen who already speaks so many truths about the world (puh-lease). Our main character does a lot of navel-gazing but unlike in Breasts and Eggs, here it seemed fitting. He is young and going through a lot so it seemed natural for him to try and make sense of what was happening to him.
The ending was slightly disappointing and I probably would have given this a higher rating if I hadn’t been for that predictable ‘show-down’. I would not necessarily recommend this to those who have a low threshold for narratives depicting bullying (extensively and graphicly). Thanks to a manga series by Keiko Suenobu called Life which kind of traumatised me when I first read it around the age of 12 I am somewhat inoculated against this kind of stuff. While Heaven was by no means a breezy or perfectly executed read I did find it to be poignant and for the most part realistic. If anything it has elevated Kawakami in my eyes.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

i deleted my review after getting one too many comments misreading my various criticisms (either calling me “too woke” or implying that i do not respect women who want to have children or, and this gets the cake, “an anglo saxon liberal chauvinist” which makes me wonder if angry commentators such as these even take the trouble of checking my profile before making their wildly inaccurate estimates or guesses about moi).

i even had a disclaimer where i stated that what i had written was less of a review than a cathartic rant…anyway, i actually really like this author, and this is the only book by her that I did not like. i had some issues with the way the author chooses to go about her interrogation of “womanhood”, that unnecessary transphobic scene which added nothing and doesn’t even lead to a more inclusive discussion on the female experience (please do not read this as me saying that kawakami herself is transphobic), the way victims of sexual abuse are portrayed as “tragically broken”…and many other things.

but if you liked it good for you. just don’t put f*cking words into my mouth. frankly i am tired of books that equate women with breast and eggs, and while this book’s title is supposedly ironic and the narrative is meant to challenge such rhetorics it ultimately doesn’t succeed (and to reiterate for those who are convinced their view is and must be universal in all things: not only is this is my opinion but my having this opinion doesn’t affect you one bit. if the knowledge that there are people out there who will interpret things differently from you leads you to leave nasty comments please unfriend me, unfollow me, and/or block me).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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