Chinese author Ma Jian’s new book, Beijing Coma, will be published in May by Chatto & Windus.

Ma Jian says, “I wanted to write a book that would bear witness to recent history and help reclaim a people’s right to remember. Through my protagonist Dai Wei — a student lying in a coma after being shot in the Tiananmen Massacre — I was able to write about brutality and injustice, but also about the things that make life worth living: love, hope, freedom, truth, and the quest for the sublime. Imprisoned in his body for ten years, Dai Wei is forced to turn inwards and confront his past, and in doing so becomes freer and more alive than the comatose crowds that surround him. The act of remembering gives life its meaning. It is an act of defiance against tyranny and death. “

Ma Jian has spent the last decade writing this book, which draws upon first-hand experience of the Tiananmen Square protest and spans ten years in China’s epic history.

Beijing Coma opens at the turn of the millennium as a young man, Dai Wei, recounts the events that led to his comatose state when, on 4 June 1989, he is shot by a soldier. Through these recollections, we see the idealistic and passionate Dai Wei experience the hope and frustration of youth as he falls in love and joins university. We also bear witness as he becomes more and more involved in the student movement for freedom and democracy, which will almost cost him his life.

The student movement gathers momentum and people descend from all over China to join the demonstration. We see the students sharing makeshift tents and warmth during their occupation of Tiananmen Square and also look on painfully as they become weakened by their hunger strike and by the petty in-fighting that threatens to divide them.

From his coma, Dai Wei can’t see or move but he can hear what’s happening in the world beyond: his mother’s struggle to keep him alive and the government’s attempt to suppress all memory of the Tiananmen massacre. As the almost minute-by-minute chronicling of the lead-up to his shooting becomes ever more intense, the reader is caught in a gripping emotional journey where the boundaries between life and death are increasingly blurred.