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Review: Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

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By Simon Demetriou

I have never looked up at an image of the Virgin Mary and wondered, ‘Hey, did you have any hobbies…?’ or hoped that she ‘managed to…take naps when [she] felt like it.’ The fact that Shibata, the protagonist and first person narrator of Emi Yagi’s debut novel, does have these thoughts when faced by a pieta tells you rather a lot about this wry and witty book.

Shibata also gets pregnant without having sex. But rather than a divine visitation, she does so through the power of lies. As the only female in her section at a paper core manufacturer, she is casually assumed to be responsible for every menial ‘domestic’ task. If the microwave goes too long without being cleaned, Shibata will hear, ‘Hey…microwave’; if the coffee needs making, it’s, ‘Hey…coffee’. Despite her bitter internal monologue – ‘My name’s not microwave’ – Shibata nevertheless complies under the weight of gendered assumptions about her role and capabilities.

Then one day, she doesn’t. She becomes pregnant instead. And all of a sudden, through the power of a simple lie, Shibata takes control of the gender role-play in her workplace and comes out on top. Now, the men treat her with deference. She can go home at 5pm, realising as if by magic that this is both a normal and a much more pleasant way to live. It’s great being pregnant.

The big question, of course, is how far can this lie go? Well, in Yagi’s wonderfully off-kilter world, the answer is very far indeed. Just as the men’s assumptions willed Shibata into a position of relative subservience, so Shibata’s wilful deception seems to create a baby out of thin air. She puts on weight. Scans at the doctor reveal images of a child growing in her womb. Yagi casually blurs the real and the invented as Shabata muses, ‘How many other imaginary children were there in the world? Where were they now?… I hoped they were leading happy lives.’ The pain that starts intensifying at week 36 is described as ‘…the price to pay. For creating another person, for spinning words.’

In the end, words seem to overwhelm reality by shaping it as they want. Shibata winds up on a panel discussion for women who manage to combine motherhood with their careers; she plans on having another baby by the time she’s 37. What that actually means in practice is impossible for the reader to accurately gauge. The ease with which Yagi spins words to fuse the absurd with the everyday, the fabricated with the real, marks Diary of a Void as a great debut. This reader, for one, is looking forward to her next creation.

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