Chatto & Windus, £16.99, order at a discount from the Independent book shop

Book review: The Dark Road, By Ma Jian, trans. Flora Drew

This river journey through boom-time China's lower depths is worthy of Dickens or Hugo

"If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates," rails Kongzi, a pedigree-proud direct descendant of the sage Confucius, "but if a woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?"

Set in a boom-time China of free money but cowed minds and shackled bodies, where a rigidly enforced one-child policy breeds persecution and subterfuge, and every womb "belongs to the state", Ma Jian's new novel answers that question with passion, zest and fury. A first-rate novelist rather than a one-note pamphleteer, Ma takes care to pit his resilient heroine Meili against her pig-headed, patriarchal spouse as much as the agencies that hound them. Here, women's anatomy becomes a "battle zone" over which "their husbands and the state fight for control".

Already deemed a dissident, Ma Jian left mainland China for Hong Kong in 1987. After the handover a decade later, he went into exile in Europe and settled in London. This novel follows in the wake of Beijing Coma, his sweeping, fearless epic of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the tarnished miracle of prosperity that – in its view – grew out of the ashes of democratic hope.

Meili, a peasant girl from a village rich in myth (Ma's people cherish the legend-strewn past), has a little daughter, Nannan, but falls pregnant again. She and Kongzi, a snobbish teacher avid to have a son and so carry on the Confucian line, go on the run from the one-child enforcement thugs. They join other "family-planning fugitives" on a picaresque journey in rickety boats and makeshift waterside shelters down the "dark road" of the Yangtze and Xi rivers.

As the "infant spirit" of this and later pregnancies comments on their plight, the couple navigate a nightmare course through forced abortions, baby-trading, child trafficking, abduction and corruption. Their goal is the tainted paradise of Heaven Township, a place grown rich on the rescue of (toxic) materials in electronic waste imported from the West. So polluted that no child there can leave the womb alive, it serves as the dystopian symbol of a land where "everyone is poisoning each other".

In an English version by Flora Drew that captures all the visceral, earthy but stubbornly lyrical colours of Ma's prose, the waterborne travails of The Dark Road swell into a lurid, seething portrait of modern China's lower depths worthy of Hugo or Dickens. If horror, sentiment and melodrama spice the family's flight, then Ma – who researched first-hand the underground world of China's over-fertile runaways – also turns a keen documentary eye on everyday life.

From the money-making scam that locks up permit-less peasant women in the cities to the noxious affluence of the digital-scrap business, Ma removes the casing of "a country that has lost its conscience" to expose its crazily tangled circuits. For all the forensic scrutiny, however, this remains the story of ever-resourceful Meili, as she strives to "dismantle" the long-suffering woman "damaged by men and the state, and reassemble it, like a refurbished computer".

Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines