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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".