“Diary of a Void” by Emi Yagi (Viking)
Shibata-san, the only woman in her office group, is tired of cleaning up after the men. One day, when her section head asks her why there are dirty coffee cups lying around hours after a meeting, she improvises an amazing lie. “I’m pregnant. The smell of coffee… triggers my morning sickness.”
Thus begins Emi Yagi’s debut novel, Diary of a Void, a somber, bitter, melancholy tale of a woman who fakes a pregnancy to resist a work culture that expects women to clean up and do all the menial office chores .
The novel is structured as a series of diary entries roughly corresponding to 40 weeks of pregnancy, with occasional flashbacks to Shibata’s childhood and a stunning flashback to her return to work after the end of her maternity leave.
In an opening note, translators David Boyd and Lucy North explain that the title reflects that of a manual published by Japan’s Ministry of Health for expectant mothers to chart their pregnancy and child’s continued development – but with a twist. The Japanese word for “mother and child” has been replaced with a word meaning “empty core” or “emptiness.”
It’s an apt word to describe Shibata’s life. She works for a company that makes hollow tubing for everything from plastic wrap to duct tape. It also recalls her intense loneliness and isolation as she struggles to make ends meet as a single woman in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo.
Yagi, an editor at a Japanese women’s magazine, writes with authority about contemporary Japanese society, particularly its ingrained patterns of gender inequality. She was sexually harassed at Shibata’s previous job. Later, a woman she meets at “mommy aerobics” complains that her husband won’t lift a finger to help with their newborn.
Her tone alternates between outrage and introspection as Shibata records the intrusive, obnoxious comments people make about her pregnancy — “Hey, is it cool if I touch your belly?” says a colleague — and recalls intimate childhood memories, when she had family and friends to support her.
Despite the trappings of 21st-century life — the bright lights of Ginza, a flashy pregnancy app, and an Amazon Prime subscription — Shibata’s life isn’t easy. Nevertheless, it is surprising when the novel takes a surreal turn at the end and the big lie develops a life of its own. This is a debut not to be missed.