Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner  {Reviewed by STELLA}
When a novel is set in a prison you might wonder how much mileage an author can get out of a small cell. Meet Rachel Kushner, author, and her protagonist Romy Hall, double-lifer plus six years. The book opens with a group of women being transported by bus from their holding prison to their permanent home at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Secured to their seats by chains, the women travel through the night and a day, upright and silent. Conversation isn’t encouraged - talking isn’t allowed but this rule doesn’t stop the tiresome Laura Lipp from laying down her story. A woman collapses en route and she is left slumped half out of her seat (declared dead on arrival). Sitting with Romy, we get a glimpse of what her life is going to be like. Kushner tells us more with her descriptions of the bleak view from the window, from the jokes, traded insults and swagger of Romy’s fellow travellers, and Romy’s observations from her place removed from society. Arriving at Stanville the women are processed - a lengthy and humiliating process - during which the youngest of them, eight-months pregnant, goes into labour. Romy and two of her fellow inmates, Fernandez and Conan, earn themselves several weeks in Ad Seg (Administrative Segregation) for helping her give birth. “My first day in prison, and I had already blown my parole board hearing, which was in thirty-seven years.” The Mars Room is a sassy and uncompromising exploration of incarceration in America. Kushner's acerbic tone gives the novel a sharp register devoid of sentiment, her characters are real and raw, and, surprisingly, you will find yourself rooting for your favourites in spite of their crimes and violent pasts. As Romy reveals her story, we are taken to the streets of San Francisco and learn of life with a mother who is hooked on drugs, of an eleven-year-old Romy's first interaction of many with arsehole men, of her friendship with the wild and beautiful Eva, who will be swallowed up by drugs, and we are given a window to the world of women on the fringes of society. Romy’s not an addict, and not without some knowledge and ability, yet she ends up as a lap dancer at the Mars Room, a seedy downtown joint, a place where she thinks she has some independence and freedom. Romy’s downfall - she’s been slipping to the fringes for a while - is Kurt Kennedy. Her victim. Kushner doesn't pull any punches with The Mars Room - it’s gritty, dirty and appalling - just as you would expect. It’s also wry, and full of outrageous characters and their wild stories of heists, bad cops, deals gone wrong, money and drugs. It’s also a tender story about motherhood: Romy’s son is seven when she last sees him. Humanity, the bonds and loyalty of the inmates alongside their prison protocols, helps them create some kind of structure in their endless and repetitive lives - a telling portrayal of our punitive modern society. The Mars Room, like Kushner’s two earlier novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, has social injustice at its core, and is written with the same keen observation and sharp wit, which will make you a fan of her work if you aren’t already. 

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