Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.
After an initial flurry of consternation over who’s going to take over coffee-making and bin emptying duties, the company bosses delegate responsibility to a male office junior, and grant various maternity benefits to their expectant employee.
A reduced workload and being allowed to leave at 5 o’clock instead of the usual 8pm, opens up a world of delights for Shibata. Not only is she being offered a seat on the busy subway, thanks to her hastily acquired Baby on Board badge, but she has the time to cook fresh food instead of ready meals and to take long, aromatic soaks in the bathtub. Shibata wants more of this. How can she hold her nerve and maintain the deception?
The answer lies in stuffing rolled up tights under her jumper, to replicate a baby bump, a handy pregnancy tracker app informing her of the requisite dimensions. At fourteen weeks, the baby was ‘the size of a small plum.’ By week 19, it’s notionally the size of a mango, and not only is Shibata now literally gaining weight but she’s indulging in imaginary one-sided conversations with the Virgin Mary, and about to feel what she believes to be tiny feet kicking inside her womb.
Bizarre, smart, and dead-pan funny, Yagi’s absurdist tale explores the constraints of Japanese society, a nation that invented the word ‘karoshi’ or ‘death from overwork,’ to reflect their famously intense work culture.
Shibata realises that it’s not a maternity benefit to leave the office at 5pm, she’s not leaving early but on time. Conversations with friends reveal that they’re all depleted by aspects of modern life, and motherhood in particular. In a pivotal scene spanning several venting pages, new mum, Hosono, shares her rage about gender expectations and the mere lip service paid to stay-at-home mothers (paternity leave seemingly an unappealing concept for many Japanese men). Although modern work culture is draining, at least an employee is valued in the way capitalist societies prize most, as an economic contributor. Poor Hosono is unpaid, undervalued, and unravelling. Does it ever occur to her husband, she wonders, that maybe she could work and he could stay at home?
Work, motherhood and patriarchy. As Shibata reminds us, while ruminating on her new pal, the Virgin Mother, ‘It’s been 2000 years and it’s the same old story, right.’
Whether miracle, delusion, or lie, her own baby seems intent on making an appearance.
An excellent addition to the growing ranks of slyly subversive Japanese social-commentary fiction.
Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi is translated by Lucy North and David Boyd and published by Harvill Secker, 224 pages.