Imagine you are only allowed to have one child but you get pregnant again, by mistake. Your government is sending out patrols to make sure that women cannot produce more children. They find child-bearing women and either insert IUDs into them, sterilize them or abort their fetuses. This story captures the struggle of one couple fighting for the right to have their second baby. It takes place in contemporary China, where the one-child policy is still being enforced (after more than thirty years of its implementation) as a “temporary” solution to overpopulation.
Not only does this book have a dark title, it has a dreary plot too. The sad thing is that it is based on a reality that still exists in China today. Meili, a young woman in one of the Chinese villages, finds herself pregnant once more. She already has a daughter with her husband (a professor and descendant of Confucius), Kongzi. The problem is that the one-child policy is still very much in force and they must now try to leave before they get caught by family planning officers. They are faced with a forced abortion or a huge fine (which they cannot afford) if they are found.
Their nine year journey takes them from the Dark Water River to, the ironically named, Heaven Township. If their way of life was not ideal to begin with, in their own town, it is certainly less than that while they flee from the government. They are left foraging for food and trying to make a living on the water, along with other refugees. Meili keeps hoping that she could stop having children for the sake of being safe and she pictures herself being a successful woman, owning her own business and dressing in fancy clothes.
Her dreams do not seem unattainable nor surprising in the modern age that they live in, yet the society that they are a part of and the husband that she has married, makes Meili’s wish impossible to reach. She suffers through unspeakable trials, as her body is truly looked upon as a machine and something which does not belong to her. In an effort to help the family, Meili tries to act on instincts which she feels is acceptable but gets her into more trouble than planned.
Kongzi’s determination to have a son leaves them living in conditions where fleas, bed bugs, ringworm and polluted waste-water are the norm. We learn how others in their situation get by day-to-day and also the horrific measures that parents will go through to obtain money (selling their daughters for meat in restaurants or maiming them to collect fees from the street).
The novel opened up my eyes and I was very angry for the majority of the story. I always say, however, that if a book can make you feel such drastic emotion that it must have been a good read. Ma Jian’s work is very much of a downer and a perfect title to discuss in book clubs but I would not recommend this to many readers. It is too depressing to encourage the random library member to pick it up. Nevertheless, it is something that needs to be written about and acknowledged—just as with any book which explains the horrific truths of mankind’s errors in society.
If you read this book, what are your thoughts? Do you agree with me?
To read reviews on The Dark Road, please click on the links below.
From The New York Times.
From The Washington Times.
For information on Ma Jian, click below:
I was looking everywhere for a reader’s guide because this is ultimate book club material. However, I am left to my own devices, once more.
1-What did you think about the list of words provided at the beginning of each chapter? What do you believe was the purpose of this?
2-Do you feel that Meili may have been able to avoid the life she is thrown into if she didn’t marry Kongzi? Would her fantasies have been realistic?
3-There are a lot of references to songs and quotes from the Chinese culture. Do you think they played an important part in the story?
4-In hindsight, why didn’t Kongzi think about giving Nannan away when he found out Meili was pregnant for the second time? Could that have solved their problems?
5-Why doesn’t Meili leave Kongzi when she finds out about his infidelity?
6-Carrying on the family line of Confucius is very important to Kongzi. Do you believe that is his only reason for sleeping with Meili every night?
7-Do you think the infant spirit’s point of view is a tool that is used to foreshadow what will happen to Meili?
8-The way Meili, Kongzi and Nannan live as refugees is described to us in great detail. How did you feel about the poverty that has affected them?
9-Kongzi is a very unlikable character. Do you feel sympathy for him at any point in the novel? Do you think he may just be a by-product of his controlling society or government?
10-What did you feel about Nannan’s view of herself as she grew older?
11-Did you believe that the book would have a happy ending? What did you gather from the conclusion?
Meili’s fourth pregnancy lasts an unbelievable five years. When Meili mentions the old woman who had been pregnant for 60 years, she was not lying. A few years ago, 92 year-old Huang Yijun of southern China, finally gave birth to a calcified baby. For more on this story, click on the following link to NBC News. This anomaly is known as a lithopedion birth and though rare, there has been about 290 cases to date. As suspected, any baby that stays in the womb for longer than anticipated (such as after 42 weeks) has a slight chance of being stillborn or can be linked to infant death. The risk increases each week after that. For information on post-term pregnancy and delivery, see the following link from Web MD.
This book reminded me of …
The topic of this story is the first I have read in a novel, however, there are other books which I thought about because of certain issues. In both David R. Gillham’s City of Women and Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter, characters feel they need to hide or keep things secretive, lest their government find out about their misdeeds. This is definitely the case in Ma Jian’s novel. The peasant life is depicted clearly in The Dark Road, just as it is done in Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy. We get the feeling of how the poor and rich populations of China share two extremes of a spectrum. The way Meili is treated by her husband totally reminded me of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also by Lisa See. The only difference between them is the time period. Finally, the struggle to hold onto a child or fight for a child’s rights is strong in both Jian’s book and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.
Favorite quote from book:
“Shelters occupied by families with young children are surrounded by broken prams and dirty plastic toys. Washing lines have been strung between the roofs of the shacks. The grey bras and tights flapping from them look pure white compared to the filth below. Along the path, pigs nozzle heaps of refuse, searching for scraps to eat, while ducks wade through waste-water streams, ruffling their wet and grimy feathers. On this hillside, the decaying and the living emit the same morbid stench.” (p. 207)
Most unspeakable moment in the story:
When Meili gets caught at eight months pregnant and is brought to the abortion clinic. No words can explain the trauma. I was so horrified and angered that I could not shed a tear. I can’t even describe the emotion I felt, as I witnessed helpless Meili succumb to the doctors. I was almost nauseous from the clinic’s monstrous actions. (p. 66-75)
Next month’s title:
The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic