"From twice National Book Award-nominated Rachel Kushner, whose Flamethrowers was called "the best, most brazen, most interesting book of the year" (Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine), comes a spectacularly compelling, heart-stopping novel about a life gone off the rails in contemporary America. It's 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, deep in California's Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: 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, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision. Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner's work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined."--
Although the author does a good job of reading the book, the subject matter could not hold my interest. The main character was a lap dancer. She is now being transferred to a new prison. She is serving two concurrent life sentences for murder. She describes her trip and some of her past. The story is bleak and dark. It is populated with characters who are miscreants and don’t seem to want to reform. Rather, some like the world inside better than the world at large.
The language the author uses is crude. Her characters are unlikeable. I got through about 1/3 of the book and finally just gave up. Simply put, the book depressed me. It may interest those who like stories about lawlessness, dysfunction and despair. It isn't my cup of tea. I didn't want to keep reading, hoping to find a redeeming feature. Sorry, but it was just too much of a downer for me
This is significant because for most of the people in this book, it's unusual for them to be seen as a human being. They have spent a lot of their lives being processed by blindly hostile bureaucracies.
No Tank Tops, the sign had said at Youth Guidance. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks.
Equally, for the men who go to the Mars Room (where Romy worked as a lapdancer), the women in front of them are not people but fantasies - and most of the women who work there have in their youth encountered men who treated them as means to an end.
This book would be almost unreadably bleak if it wasn't so good, and so compassionate towards its characters - not just because of what has been done to them, but because of what they have done. It doesn't pretend that they are angels, but it does recognise that having committed a crime is also something which has a huge impact on the criminal.
You go to ad seg and you don’t stop having feelings. You hear a woman cry and it’s real. It’s not a courtroom, where they ask all the pertinent and wrong questions, the niggling repeated demands for details, to sort contradiction and establish intent. The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.
Romy Hall is a young mother in 2003 when her shitty world comes crashing down around her and she ends up with two life sentences in a California penitentiary. This is the grittiest and most maddening novel I’ve read in a long time. Kushner knew just what she was doing in tearing down the general policy of mass incarceration of poor people who may or may not belong in prison but definitely got a raw deal because they couldn’t afford a good criminal attorney and had to settle for a court appointed lawyer, who really could care less what the outcome for their client was.
Romy was dealt a hand from the bottom of the deck from the day she was born and her negligent mother named her after a German actress who was said to have dated Hitler. So an auspicious start for Romy. Things just went downhill for her from there. It’s not until the end of the book that we learn the details of what she did to land in prison.
Kushner fills the book with complicated characters who share Romy’s fate and favors a dry, static narration that serves to build the drama of their lives. Overcrowded conditions wear the inmates down as well as the inhumane treatment by the prison guards. The scene where Romy and some other inmates are being delivered to the prison initially when a young woman goes into labor will tear your heart out and just adds to the frustration and anger that builds as the novel progresses. This is not an easy read but, I think, a necessary one. If we are not going to ensure that poor people get a proper defense in court we will never get beyond the horrifying conditions of mass incarceration in this country. Highly recommended.
In The Mars Room, we get a down-and-dirty look at prison life for women and a glimpse into the milieu for which prison is one of the only options available to them. For those readers like me who grew up with a modicum of privilege, Romy’s life before her sentencing is an eye-opening experience. Ms. Kushner portrays the downtrodden – the homeless, the junkies, the alcoholics, the poorest of the poor – with dedication and delicacy, neither making excuses for them nor softening the harsh truths of their existence but doing so in a way that is not exploitative nor sensationalized. She portrays Romy’s life with empathy and an attention to detail that highlights her detailed research into the California prison system and experience of life on the streets. Given her careful research, it makes Romy’s case that much more infuriating – because you know this is one novel in which fiction is fact and that there is someone in Romy’s exact situation sitting in jail for the wrong reason and with no recourse for justice. The Mars Room is by no means an easy read, nor should it be for those who will never be forced to sell their body for money or who will never know what it feels like to literally have no food and no money to buy some. However, it is a book which should be required reading as it shines a light on the prison system and the prejudices and discrimination that exist for women within it.
While The Mars Room is a hard-hitting, behind-the-scenes true story type novel, Our Kind of Cruelty reminds me of Caroline Kepnes’ You. The problem is that Mike is no Joe, neither as well-read nor as charming. Mike’s tragic childhood does make him a sympathetic character and his love for V is as open and honest as you can get. Even while you start harboring doubts about Mike’s version of reality, you still want him to get the girl in the end. That is right until you realize towards what Ms. Hall is driving. By then, all bets are off.
Both novels are important in the light they shine on women and the justice system. The lack of justice in both novels is infuriating, which is exactly the point. In this era of heightened awareness of gender treatment, we should be outraged by the injustice both Romy and V experience because Romy and V are all women. Novels like The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are vital for increasing awareness even further and providing avenues of dialogue necessary to make much-needed changes. Women are angry, and our anger is beginning to trickle into the arts in greater numbers in hopes of fostering such dialogue. The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are two new examples of women using their anger for good and provide two fantastic examples of gender bias to use in our arguments challenging it.
Rachel Kushner paints a blunt picture of life inside a prison. The idea of such a place as somewhere you can become a better person and atone for your wrongdoings is far from what she describes. It is a constant struggle of surviving and of adapting to the unwritten laws. Life is a series of disappointments, visitors who never come, news which do not reach you. And outside, there isn’t much waiting for you either.
It wasn’t that easy for me to sympathise with the protagonist Romy. This might be due to her role; even though she is inside, she remains an observer somehow. At the same time, there is so much unsaid about her that makes it difficult to form a whole picture of her. The fact that the reason for her imprisonment isn’t given immediately, on the other hand, adds to the underlying suspense of the novel. Slowly you get closer to the culminating point which reveals what happened. Additionally, the other characters are, obviously, those at the margins of society, people you wouldn’t actually socialise with and which sometimes repel you as a reader.
What I really liked is Kushner’s style of writing. The protagonist’s narration flows like a stream of consciousness which makes it quite realistic and lively. Furthermore, she often hints at what is to come without saying too much, just enough to arouse your interest. When Romy talks about her life and most of all about her future, she is quite direct – well, there isn’t much reason to embellish anything and therefore, her words sound absolutely authentic.
Kushner knows how to write and she writes with a light tone that keeps The Mars Room from being about misery, and is instead about the people that society has little use for. The women imprisoned in a bleak facility in Central California were destined to be there from childhoods spent in foster homes or roaming the streets. While there is a lot to say about the serious flaws in American society and failures of the justice system, this is much more of a character study of a resourceful and intelligent woman than a polemic.
Though most of the novel is told from Romy’s perspective, Rachel Kushner moves us to a variety of points of view, different lives but maybe shared priorities. There is Gordon, the well-meaning but possibly deluded English teacher. There is Kurt, the creep. There is Doc, who was a bent cop. And interspersed are conflicting notes on alienation and community from Thoreau and the Unabomber. It is a rich tapestry. Yet Kushner never lets the writing slip into cliché or sloppy romanticism. Her characters are harsh or tender, but never dreamlike. Even the worst of them seem like human beings, though not particularly human beings you might want to meet (other than in these pages). And for Romy, there develops a hopeless hopefulness. Because in our hearts and in our minds, we know she’s never getting out.
This is exceptional writing. Reason enough to read everything else Kushner has written or will write.
It is 2003, Romy Hall is serving 2 consecutive life sentences, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, in California. This story follows, her daily prison life, with impressive detail, it also looks back at her life, before the conviction, working at a strip club called The Mars Room, and glimpses at what led to her crime, which involves a particularly creepy, stalker.
The author really seems to have done her research here, diving deep, into the dark, psychological, complexities, of these convicted women, without the usual stereotypical tropes. The writing is deft, and uniformly strong.
This was my first novel, by Kushner, and reviews, seems to be mixed, but I was very impressed with it, throughout and look forward to reading more of her work.
By Rachel Kushner
Simon & Schuster
Rachel Kushners masterful style and memorable characters capture the environment and lifestyles within the Stan- ville Womens Correctional Facility in California's Central Valley so precisely and exactly, it's easy to forget this is a work of fiction.
Romy Hall, the main character is full and complicated. The relationships between prisoners and guards, prisoners and other prisoners, and prisoners with their own selves and personalities, make a statement without being overtly political. Kushner shows us the disparity and abuses of the prison system through the lives and interactions of her characters.
Rachel Kushner is a master...one of my favorite authors because of her intelligent mastery of ideas and ideals, and her work is always insightful and compelling.
Mesmerizing. A MUST READ!! Fantabulous.
The writing is so well-done. The characters have deep introspections about life, nature, society but it always flows with the story. Note: there’s a good amount of violence and very little hope in this one. Not a pick-me-up at all! If you watched Orange is the New Black you can handle it.
My Thoughts: I started listening to this right after it made the Booker Prize shortlist. Although I understand perfectly why it made the shortlist (the writing style is superb), I wasn’t overly impressed with the story. Don’t get me wrong…I had emotional investment in Ms. Hall, and felt the other characters were realistic and well-written. And I think Kushner achieved exactly what she set out to do: flawlessly executing the stream-of-consciousness style. I was just in the mood for a story with more plot. But this book wasn’t about plot. It was a book about character and setting. And the characters and setting were superbly written. So I will still give the book 4 stars, even though it wasn’t what I was in the mood for.
The book starts with Romy being transported from county jail to prison in a bus with other inmates. It's sad, but by the way the people are talking on this bus you can really see their lack of knowledge. It is somewhat entertaining though.
This book is nothing like OITNB or Wentworth (both shows I watch). However, it is probably more true to Wentworth if your looking for a correlation. There are sex scenes, although it's more talk about it than anything and nothing like the ones in OITNB.
It's a dirty, gritty story about life in prison. If your looking for something fun, this is not for you. However, if you ever wondered about the days and days in a shared cell, this is a real eye-opener.
I found it to be an excellent read and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I highly recommend it if your looking for real life grittiness.
Huge thanks to the great folks at Scribner and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
The story works best when Romy speaks directly to the reader, unfortunately that is not always the case as many perspectives also make up the story taking the reader in and out of prison, into the past, into the present. It doesn't run smoothly.
The story didn't hold me. We, as adults, know the justice system is broken, that people make bad decisions, poverty is a detriment and lives can go very, very wrong in a blink of an eye. Yet, this story beats (no pun intended) it in to the reader, over and over again.
In its entirety, it read like a script from the Netflix serial "Orange is the New Black". I am sorry to report that The Mars Room disappointed me and I disliked the paths the author went down without supplying any resolve.
Looking forward to reading more of Kushner’s books.
So, it's OK. I don't quit get why this was shortlisted (or longlisted, really). I also did not love The Flamethrowers, so I think I don't get Kushner.
The best parts, for me, were her descriptions of California and San Francisco. The errors, though, drive me crazy. Magic Mountain is not in Ventura County, it's in LA County. You don't go into Ventura County driving from LA over the Grapevine. Is this sloppiness? Or is it meant to tell us something about Romy--maybe she's not as smart as she thinks? But that feels like I am reading way too much into the author's intentions. I am guessing plain old sloppiness.