I went to see Rachel Kushner speak last year in June. I’d never read anything by the multiple National Book Award finalist, but I grab any chance I can to hear an acclaimed author speak – especially in English. I enjoyed the talk enough to grab a copy of the novel. As usual, the book sat in my #TBR pile for months before I got around to reading it. The book finally managed to make it to the top of my TBR heap when my book club picked it for our February read.
It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.
~ My Review ~
I’m not surprised The Mars Room was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a beautifully written book that focusses upon a topic rarely seen in the world of fiction – women in prison. Romy Hall’s voice comes through with such clarity that it’s as if Romy was standing next to me reading her story out loud. But this was not an easy story to read. On the contrary, Romy’s life was the stuff of which nightmares are made. A kid who got off track, never found her way, and ends up in prison for life.
Fortunately, Romy’s story is not told in one exceedingly long narrative. Instead, we view bits and pieces of her past as she struggles to make it through every day life in prison. This made the story palatable, although no less heartbreaking. I found myself sympathizing with Romy and wanting to kick a guard or two in the shin. The portrayal of the guards was strikingly honest. Their lack of sympathy as well as desire to make a buck or two off the inmates hit the nail on the head.
We also get a glimpse into other lives as the novel is told from various points of view. These changes were a breath of fresh air. Each time I thought I couldn’t read one more word of Romy’s story, the chapter ends, and we switch points of view. The decision to tell the story of Romy’s crime from the victim’s point of view was nothing short of brilliant.
Kushner addresses several societal themes of modern-day society. Everything from prison reform to criminal justice reform to child care reform to traditional gender roles. Although her thoughts (disdain?) for these systems are loud and clear, she doesn’t shove her opinion into the reader’s face. This is where her brilliance shines. She shows us the situation and lets us come to our own conclusions.
The Mars Room is a breathtakingly beautiful book about an abysmal situation. I couldn’t put it down.
Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Five Novel of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. A collection of her early work, The Strange Case of Rachel K, was published by New Directions in 2015. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Paris Review. She is the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2016 Harold D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.