The Mars Room

Author(s): Rachel Kushner

Novel | 2018 Man Booker Prize long list | 2018 Man Booker Prize short list

Reviewed by Bookoccino owner, Raymond Bonner.

Unforgettable characters, from the streets of San Francisco to inside women’s prisons.  As realistic as non-fiction; as well written as the most captivating fiction.


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 relentlessly 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 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.

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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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

"The Mars Room is mysterious and irreducible. The writing is beautiful -- from hard precision to lyrical imagery, with a flawless feel for when to soar and when to pull back." -- Dana Spiotta "The Mars Room is uniquely informed ... empathetic. An addictive novel, laced throughout with bracing intelligence."--Joshua Ferris  "It's her best book yet, another big step forward. " --Jonathan Franzen * 'Kushner is one of our most outstanding modern writers.' STYLIST' More knowing about prison life than Orange Is The New powerful.' --NEW YORK TIMES 'Breathtaking.' --VOGUE

Rachel Kushner's debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up novel, The Flamethrowers, was also a finalist for the National Book Award and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's and the Paris Review. She lives in Los Angeles.

General Fields

  • : 9781910702680
  • : Penguin Random House
  • : Jonathan Cape
  • : 0.459
  • : February 2018
  • : 234mm X 153mm
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Rachel Kushner
  • : Paperback
  • : 418
  • : English
  • : 813/.6
  • : 352