The Dark Road
By Ma Jian
Translated by Flora Drew
Penguin June 2013
From the library
Meili is pregnant with her second child. What should be a time of celebration is overshadowed by danger. Meili and her husband Kongzi live in China and they don't have a permit to have a second child. Kongzi is determined to have a son and continue the proud line of Confucius. When family planning officials start to close in on their village, the couple flee with their daughter Nannan. They travel down the Yangtze River, living in deplorable circumstances and always looking over their shoulders for the authorities who will rip their family apart.
This is the first book in a long time that I actually had to convince myself to keep reading. This book is incredibly graphic and dark. The knowledge while that Meili may be fictional, her plight is not makes it even more difficult to stomach. Family planning officials have the ability to take you off the street to sterilize you, insert an IUD, or perform a late term abortion. They will then send you on your way...with the bill, of course.
Meili is caught between two forces - her husband's determination to have a son and the government's determination to control their family. While the government may be cruel, her husband is equally so as he puts his desire to have a son over the safety of the family he already has. "When she met him at seventeen, she believed marriage was for ever, that the government protects and cares for the people, and that husbands protect and care for their wives. But as soon as she got married, these naive beliefs were shattered. She discovered that women don't own their bodies: their wombs and genitals are battle zones over which their husband and the state fight for control - territories their husbands invade for sexual gratification and to produce male heirs, and which the state probes, monitors, guards and scrapes so as to assert its power and spread fear. These continual intrusions into her body's most intimate parts have made her lose her sense of who she is. All she is certain of is that she is a legal wife and an illegal mother."
Throughout the book, Jian changes the point of view from Meili to the spirit of her unborn child. This gives him the opportunity to have some omniscient narration alongside Meili's version of events. This technique is jarring and I was often tempted to skip over it in order to get back to the main narrative. However, I can see how Jian thought using the infant spirit would both give a voice to the fetus whose fate is the focus of this book and illustrate the reverence that many Chinese people (such as Kongzi) have for the spirits and their ancestors.
The Dark River truly exhibits the dissonance of life in rural China. While Meili talks about becoming a businesswoman and longs for certain high-end purses and shoes, she also makes dinner by scraping the skins of potatoes with a shard of glass. The contrast between what she sees and the little that she has makes her story all the more heartbreaking. In some instances, modern China looks just like the modern US. But in the darkest moments of this book, readers are reminded of the horrors that are feared daily by Chinese women. The Dark Road is not a book you will soon forget. "If a panda gets pregnant, the entire nation celebrates, but if a woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal. What kind of country is this?"