Man Booker longlist title #5 for me was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. I’m still optimistic about making it through the longlist, but I know it will take me some time. I haven’t loved all of the titles I’ve read so far, but it has been overall an enjoyable reading experience. The Mars Room was no exception.
About the book: Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences for a crime she committed in Los Angeles. As the book opens, she is being moved to the women’s correctional facility in Stanville, where she’ll work toward her goal of locating her young son and making sure he’s being cared for. Gordon Hauser, the continuing education teacher at Stanville, is Romy’s best hope of making contact with someone on the outside who knows anything about her son, so she begins cultivating a friendship with Hauser to win him over. Unbeknownst to Romy, Hauser is interested in her for his own reasons, but he’s already faced consequences for involvement with an imprisoned woman. Romy is running out of options.
“The images were all the same: sour light and custodial formatting offset by the wild eyes and mussed hair of people yanked from life, arrested, numbered, ingested, and exposed.”
Like most systems, the US prison system has its flaws. Mass incarceration has to balance a certain uniformity of punishment without losing sight of the fact that every case is different and every prisoner is human. Romy’s story (and those she learns along the way) show the ways in which the system fails. There are a lot of little disturbing details that showcase how the importance of paperwork and procedures can mean inadequate care or attention on an individual basis– possibly even for a child on the outside who’s being denied a connection with his mother. The book also challenges the argument that “if she wanted to ___ she shouldn’t have gotten herself locked in prison.” Some of the lessons are familiar from the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, but these characters are new and distinct, with hardships of their own. The Mars Room manages to be eye-opening even for readers who think they know something about injustice in the prison system.
“A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.”
With the focus on a female facility, there is also an emphasis on woman-specific experiences. There’s a woman who comes to Stanville pregnant and has her baby in the facility. There’s a character in the prison who identifies as male, and a character coming into the prison who was male and has convinced the state to recognize her as a woman. Several of the women are imprisoned for crimes against abusive men in their lives. Romy made a living off of lap dancing. She’s a mother. Some of this is offset by the chapters in Doc’s perspective, an imprisoned man in another facility (though he knows someone in Stanville Women’s) who gives readers some man-specific experiences. I would argue that Doc’s perspective is not necessary to this story, that enough of the differences come across clearly through Romy’s narration alone, but Doc is there as a counterbalance nonetheless.
“If I was a dude I’d be like I am right now. ‘Cept not locked up.”
The Mars Room is narrated mainly from the perspective of Romy Hall, but also from the perspectives of a few people whose stories overlap with hers in some way. While in theory it is interesting to see Romy’s story in juxtaposition with a male prisoner’s, with her teacher’s, with her victim’s, I think there should have been a line drawn between what’s interesting and what’s necessary. “Interesting” is best saved for a Further Recommendations list in the back of the book, in my opinion. For example, there are chapters filled with samples of Hauser’s reading material during the timeline of this novel’s events, and those seem in no way necessary to the story. If Ted Kaczynski has any relation at all to Romy, please, someone explain it to me. By far the strongest chapters are Romy’s, and I think the book could have been stronger as a whole if some of those extra perspective chapters had been condensed or even removed. The only exception being Kurt’s chapter, which shows Romy’s life and choices from a new side that gives the entire story a wider scope and overturns some of the reader’s assumptions.
“They make you form your life around one thing, the thing you did, and you have to grow yourself from what cannot be undone: they want you to make something from nothing. They make you hate them and yourself. They make it seem that they are the world, and you’ve betrayed it, them, but the world is so much bigger.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I really find women’s prison stories engrossing, between this book and Orange is the New Black and Sleeping Beauties I’ve been consuming a lot of them lately .I hope I’m never in a position to learn about women’s prisons firsthand, but I think it’s invaluable to learn about real-world situations and gain awareness of the things that happen to real people, even if my preferred method of learning requires filtering art and lies from grains of truth. Next up on the Man Booker list for me is probably The Water Cure but possibly Sabrina, whichever comes through for me first.
- If you’re okay with sci-fi/dystopian genres and want another women’s prison narrative, check out Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, a novel set in an Appalachian women’s prison in the midst of a worldwide sleeping phenomenon. Women fall asleep, form a sort of cocoon, and wake up somewhere else without going anywhere at all.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is also a good choice for readers interested in incarceration as a social issue. This novel features a black man wrongfully convicted and the consequences his imprisonment has on his reputation and relationships with family and friends on the outside.
- If you’re interested in the Man Booker longlist this year, all of the titles look pretty great. Here are my reviews for the other titles I’ve read so far, in order of my personal preference, starting with the best: Everything Under, From a Low and Quiet Sea, Warlight, and Snap.
Have you read The Mars Room or another novel about women’s prisons? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant