Review by David Starkey
Emi Yagi’s Diary of a Void, winner of the Dazai Osamu Prize for a debut novel, is based on a simple yet irresistible premise. Shibata, the book’s protagonist, is the only woman in the office of a company that makes the cardboard tubes that hold toilet paper, tape and paper towels. Sexist workplace culture dictates that she must not only perform own dull but time-consuming job, she is also expected to do all the tasks, like cleaning up the detritus after a meeting, that no one else wants to do. One day, fed up, she tells everyone she is pregnant, though she isn’t.
Almost immediately, her life changes for the better. Not just the men in the office, but everyone she meets, is polite and deferential. She is allowed to go home on time rather than hours after the supposed end of her working day. When she shops for dinner in the evenings, there is still fresh food in the stores. She has time to watch movies on Amazon Prime that she’d only heard about but never seen: The Godfather, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Amélie. She begins exercising and looking out at the night sky.
The book’s chapters are divided into the weeks of Shibata’s imaginary pregnancy, and that narrative device, along with her frequent reference to the Baby-N-Me app she downloads on her phone, make her impending “delivery”—“When HR asked when the baby was due, I said the first date that came to mind: the middle of May”—feel more and more real. When Shibata joins an aerobics class for pregnant mothers, she’s immediately accepted, and suddenly she has the friend group that’s been missing from her life.
While Yagi has a lot to say about the rampant sexism in Japanese life, overall–in David Boyd and Lucy North’s translation–this is a gentle novel, and the closest thing to an antagonist is Shibata’s nosy, nerdy and annoying workmate, Higashinakano. He makes up names for her child and constantly asks if it will be a boy or a girl. At times, one wonders if he might be suspicious about her pregnancy, or if he has some malign intentions, but Diary of a Void is not that kind of book.
Nevertheless, there is one harrowing moment when Shibata meets Hosono, one of the mothers from her aerobics class, on a midnight stroll through her neighborhood. Standing in the middle of the road, Hosano is rocking back and forth in a kind of dance “to a song that no one else could hear.” She’s out in the street because she doesn’t want to wake her grumpy husband, and if she stops moving, her baby will scream. It’s a predicament all new parents have faced, but Yagi gives the scene an existential terror that adds an element of darkness to this novel that mostly aspires to the light.
The ending, however, is unsatisfactory. A mashup of surrealism, misdirection, contradiction and inconclusiveness, it might work in the movie version, but for a novel which has been told in such diaristic detail, it doesn’t make sense. Still, if Diary of a Void feels like a novel where the author never quite decided how to get her protagonist out of the situation in which she had placed her, it’s a lively read and an enlightening window into contemporary Japan.