Verdict: Ambitious, sprawling, infuriating, slightly uneven.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Published by Random House UK/ Vintage (Jonathan Cape), June 7th 2018
Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.
Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner details with humour and precision. Daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike. Allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through sewage pipes.
Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny and culminating in a climax of almost unbearable intensity. Through Romy – and through a cast of astonishing characters populating The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.
Rachel Kushner has written a book that is very obviously close to her heart and the result of a whole lot of research. I found her personal stance to be understandable and un-deniable but she did not sacrifice her writing or her plot to make her point.
The anchor of this sprawling story of women in prison is Romy Hall, sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the killing of her stalker. The book starts heart-wrenchingly with her being driven to the prison where she will be spending the rest of her life. This early scene hooked me completely and made me not only sympathetic to Romy’s story but also highly invested. Her story is told in unchronological flashbacks while we follow her first few years in prison. Additionally Kushner writes a series of vignettes of the other inmates’ stories as well as adding a few outside perspectives. These vignettes work well in humanizing the inmates (if that is at all necessary). In all these stories, Kushner emphasises the role a lack of agency resulting from less than ideal circumstances had in the way people’s lives turns out.
While I often found that these multiple perspectives worked really well, I found Doc’s character superfluous and quite grating to be spending time with. While I can absolutely see the point to the other perspectives, with his I could not get on board. I thought it did not add anything substantial to the overall work and it did distract from other, more interesting characters. My gut reaction upon finishing this book had been that I wished Kushner had concentrated on the female perspectives, on reflection I can actually see the way these male perspectives mirrored the female experiences and went a long way in deepening my understanding of just how stacked against those women the system is. Even the people mostly sympathetic to the women’s causes (such as Gordon) never really saw the women as people in their own rights, with worth not related to how much the men liked them.
This is a super ambitious book that overall impressed me immensely even if I wasn’t always quite in love with it – there were a couple of decisions made towards the end that did not quite work for me. But I guess I do prefer a book to aim to high and fail a little to one that doesn’t challenge me at all. I found it ultimately heart-breaking and infuriating – the way these women are treated made me angry to no end and Rachel Kushner’s impressive attention to detail worked in making this book feel lived in. It absolutely deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist but I would not be dissappointed if it didn’t make the shortlist.
I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Random House UK/ Vintage (Jonathan Cape) in exchange for an honest review.