Review: Fake pregnancy transforms lonely salarywoman’s life

“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 dirty coffee cups are still lying around hours after a meeting, she improvises an astonishing lie. “I’m pregnant. The smell of coffee … triggers my morning sickness.”

So begins Emi Yagi’s debut novel, “Diary of a Void,” a bleak, acerbic, melancholy story of a woman who fakes a pregnancy to fight back against a workplace culture that expects women to tidy up and do all the menial chores around the office.

The novel is structured as a series of diary entries that roughly correspond to the 40 weeks of a pregnancy with occasional flashbacks to Shibata’s childhood and one stunning flash-forward to her return to work after her maternity leave is over.

In a note at the beginning, translators David Boyd and Lucy North explain that the title echoes that of a handbook issued by Japan’s health ministry to expectant mothers to chronicle their pregnancy and child’s subsequent development — but with a twist. The Japanese word for “mother and child” has been replaced by one that means “empty core” or “void.”

It is an apt word to describe Shibata’s life. She works for a company that manufactures the hollow tubes used in everything from plastic wrap to sticky tape. It also evokes her intense loneliness and isolation as she struggles to get by as a single woman in the sprawling megalopolis of Tokyo.

Yagi, an editor at a Japanese women’s magazine, writes with authority about contemporary Japanese society, particularly its deeply ingrained patterns of gender inequality. At Shibata’s previous job, she was subjected to sexual harassment. Later, a woman she meets in “mommy aerobics” complains that her husband doesn’t lift a finger to help with their newborn.

Her tone alternates between outrage and introspection as Shibata records the intrusive, obnoxious remarks people make about her pregnancy — “Hey, is it cool if I touch your bump?” a co-worker says — and recalls intimate memories of childhood, 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 a subscription to Amazon Prime — Shibata’s life isn’t easy. Still, it comes as a surprise when the novel takes a surreal turn at the end, and the big lie assumes a life of its own. This is a debut you won’t want to miss.

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