#3 (2020): The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

My third read of the year was a book I’d been wanting to read for ages: The Mars Room. Crime novels aren’t something I typically gravitate towards, but this seemed more like a post-crime narrative that posed deeper questions about a woman’s place in society, and her right to feel safe and free from harassment.

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 bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living.

I found the book a little sluggish to begin with, which was disappointing after waiting so long to read it. The opening pages had a fragmentary quality and provided little tastes of Romy in her present state, information about her, or musings on San Francisco. This worked overall but I wanted Kushner to settle on something and drag me in a little before flitting to another perspective or topic.

However, the book was well worth persevering with and I soon felt myself immersed in Romy’s world. Over the course of the book, Kushner weaves the stories from other prisoners into the narrative, and at points the prose shifts from the first person to the third. I liked that this fleshed out the other characters, who might otherwise have lacked substance.

I found Kushner’s depictions of San Francisco vivid and believable, and the little scenic details she dropped in immediately brought vibrancy to a scene. There’s a moment when she describes Los Angeles and I was immediately transported back to my brief stay in California in early 2019.

But Los Angeles was a new planet, with Creamsicle sunsets, sandals in January, giant birds of paradise, supermarkets with gleaming rows of tropical produce. (Pg. 203)

This is a delicious contrast to her earlier description of San Fran:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. (Pg. 33)

Overall, this was an enjoyable (although sometimes unflinchingly grim) read. I suspect fans of Orange is the New Black may find something for them with Kushner’s institutional tale.

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