All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Man Booker Shortlist #2: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

on October 26, 2018

The Mars Room 
Rachel Kushner
Jonathan Cape
2018, 352p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

So this was my second read from the Man Booker shortlist. Like Washington Black before it, I chose it for #2 simply because I liked the sound of the blurb. It felt like something I’d find interesting and that turned out to be true. There was a lot about this book that I found fascinating, a lot of really important issues that I think it raised. But the way it was written did at times, make it a bit of a slog.

Romy has been given two life sentences for murdering a man. She doesn’t seem particularly bothered about what she has done, or about going to jail. The only thing that really seems to bother Romy is her son Jackson who she has had to leave behind in the care of her mother. Romy details her life in out of sequence flashbacks – her childhood roaming the streets, her job as a stripper, her various relationships with men, the struggles of drugs or drink. Romy has seen and done things, will see and do more yet in her time in prison.

Where I think this book excels is its look at the justice system and how it disadvantages those who are from poor or migrant backgrounds. Romy has no money for a defence lawyer and her court appointed lawyer seems nothing short of useless. There is crucial information and evidence that is dismissed entirely from Romy’s court case and cannot be used or mentioned at all as part of her defence. Even worse is what happens to Romy’s son after she is incarcerated. Her parental rights are terminated and when his guardian dies, Romy cannot even find out where he is or what has happened to him. There’s a repetition in this book, that the prison guards repeat to these women over and over again – “you should’ve thought about that before you committed a crime” which they say in relation to their children, wanting information about their children or lamenting the fact that they are separated from their children. One of Romy’s fellow inmates gives birth the night they arrive at the jail and what happens to her is nothing short of barbaric. They are denied the basics of medical care, the other prisoners are tasered or pepper sprayed for trying to help the girl in labour. The system is inflexible and judgemental. Romy aside, who murdered her stalker, some of these women are in jail for minor theft and drug offences, in and out of the system constantly because it’s a cycle they cannot escape. They are poor more often than not, of disadvantaged backgrounds, victims of abuse and/or drug and alcohol addictions. Romy herself is from a background where she was left fend for herself from far too young an age with a disinterested mother and an unstable home life.

So I did really appreciate a lot of Romy’s story and the stories of those she has met in her life. There are many imperfect people out there, many bad situations and this provides a bit of a look at how some people can end up in the prison system, be it for life like Romy or in and out like several others. However – this book also introduces a few other characters, some of which Romy comes into contact with, some of which may have come into contact with others in Romy’s orbit but to me a lot of those sections didn’t really go anywhere and they kind of detracted from Romy’s story. It wasn’t a particularly easy book to read at times, chopping and changing between characters and times with little indication that things were going to change. There’s also some extracts or something about the Unabomber? Which is a bit random. I also didn’t really understand how she was serving two life sentences for the murder of one person but I’m not well versed in Californian criminal law either. That seemed to suggest that Romy was much more dangerous than she honestly appeared to be, although having the key facts omitted from her court case did a lot to shape the perception of her. It seems an even greater example of the divide between the have and have nots and makes you wonder what Romy’s outcome would’ve been with a top lawyer or at least one that could get relevant facts actually admitted into evidence. If she’d had more options for the care of her son. If there’d been something for her to keep going. If the system was different. There’s a lot of thoughts that this book provokes which is I guess why it was long and then short listed. But it’s unfortunate that for me, it kept getting sidetracked and bogged down with other stuff, that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about or want to read about. It made the story sometimes lose its way for me and the lack of dialogue and choppy telling often meant it was a struggle to stay focused.

6/10

Book #181 of 2018


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