Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Scribner: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476756554

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is a highly recommended drama set in a California women’s prison.

Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley because she killed a man. The man met her at The Mars Room, the strip joint in San Francisco where she worked,  and was stalking her so she had to kill him. Now her mother has custody of her son, Jackson, and she is settling into prison life. Romy has always lived her life in the margins of society, using drugs, prostitution, committing crimes, and her guilt in never in question.

The guilt of the women she is imprisoned with is never in question either. Kushner follows the lives of the women and the treatment they receive from the guards and each other.  She also explores all the details of life inside and how the women find a way to make their own society, of a sort.  Along with Romy's story, and that of other women at Stanville, the lives of several other characters are explored in chapters, including Gordon Hauser, a GED teacher assigned to Stanville and "Doc," a dirty LAPD cop convicted of murder and in the Sensitive Needs block of New Folsom Prison. There are also included parts of the journal of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

First, this is technically, a very well written novel.
It demonstrates the amount of research that went into writing it and captures the brutal reality of the system and how it often fails those living in poverty. So, while I would agree with all reviewers who feel that The Mars Room is a searing look at the lives of those born into poverty and demonstrates their struggles, even while turning to drugs and a criminal lifestyle, it also managed to get a bit wordy and off-track when adding in the stories of other people who were only marginally connect to Romy's story. The novel lacked a wee bit of focus, which made it lose some of its power.

My rating was going to be a simple recommended, until the ending, which I felt was perfect for the novel and made slogging through some if it worth the experience. When the focus is on Romy, her experiences, her story, her life, the novel does an exceptional job capturing the realities of her life, often eloquently. It is the extras that didn't significantly add to the totality of the novel for me.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner via Netgalley.

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