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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.






What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

24 thoughts on “The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

  • The attraction began to fade for me rather quickly, too, and unlike you, I cannot imagine how it made the short list while other books, such as Donal Ryan’s, did not. You gave it a very fair review, which I enjoyed more than the novel itself.

    • I give up trying to understand why some books make the long/shortlist and others never get a look in. Did this book stand out from the crowd just because of its setting / topic rather than its literary merit??

  • I do remember having a conversation with my students inside the correctional facility about how they wanted to wear t-shirts that said our college name on them, but the shirts had to be a prison-approved color. At that particular facility, the color is gray. I also remember students telling me about how there is no sugar anywhere in the prison. They can’t even buy it at commissary. They can get things like Sweet and Low, which is a sweetener, but it doesn’t make alcohol. Several of them seem to think that the Sweet and Low is going to kill them, and that the prison was abusing them because they only offered a sugar substitute.

    • I get the rule about no sugar but why does it matter to the prison to have an approved colour? How does that help anyone to be rehabilitated??

      • Because if there is no approved color, it’s easy for someone to get out by blending in with visitors. Prisoners must be easily identifiable at all times.

  • I really liked this book, though it didn’t blow me away, and one of the reasons which you mentioned, were the changes in narrator. I agree that Romy’s character was much more compelling. I found the story about her child really devastating, and you know that must be all too common. And also the sheer length of her sentences – how could you possibly maintain any hope? Bryan Stevenson writes about how we throw people away in the justice system, and this book is quite an illustration of that (even knowing that as a white woman, Romy would have been treated better than many others).

    • There wasn’t much evidence in this book about prison giving opportunities to learn new skills that could enable them to be better citizens in the future. Sewing sand bags would hardly set you up for a new job opportunity after release. As for the narrators, I didn’t think they added a lot to the book – especially Doc.

  • Hmmm. Apart from the fact I’ll never think about peanut butter again in the same way, I don’t think this book is really for me…… 😮

  • Shame about the ending and the level of detail throughout. I really liked her previous book, The Flamethrowers, but reviews of this one have been relatively mixed.

    • I hadn’t heard of her until she popped up on the Booker longlist. She can certainly write well, with this book though I thought she was trying to cram too many different ideas in and didn’t really then have enough time to pursue them more thoroughly

  • No, I don’t think I’d read this one either. It sounds a bit heavy handed.
    By coincidence I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which is about a woman convicted of murder in the C19th. That’s spine-chilling, the way prisoners were treated then.

    • Alias Grace is a tremendous book, one of the first I read by Atwood. We saw a modern day adaptation for TV (which may have been this year – I can’t remember) and it made a pretty good job of it though of course can’t convey the subtleties of the language

      • I think it’s brilliant the way she manages to capture so many different voices in the novel and I always enjoy the feminist slant that colours everything she writes.

  • What a nightmare this woman faced. Stories like these are important as they enlighten us to the injustices, of which are many, of the justice system but so depressing to read.

    • I think the author spent a lot of time visiting these kinds of institutions so the detail isn’t fabricated. No matter how many times we see it depicted in film etc, I bet nothing prepares you for the reality

  • buriedinprint

    Well, you know how they say that you can learn more by reading a novel than reading non-fiction? You probably wouldn’t have picked up the non-fiction volume which would have taught you these skills, so it’s lucky this one made the short-list then!

    • Thats true, I doubt there is a book anywhere that tells you how to make that ketchup hooch….

  • I’m interested to read this, although it does sound like it gets a little bogged down in detail.

    • It’s not so much the detail that drags it down Cathy as the fact that she tries to cover so many different bases and ideas.

  • Like Rebecca, I can see why this has won so much praise, but definitely not a book for me. I have several friends who work in the prison service in one capacity or another and I hear enough from them to last a life time.

  • I love that list of ‘skills’ you’ve learned. Should come in handy some day 😉 I know Kushner did years of research for this book; the problem with that can be that so much detail is overwhelming. I don’t think I will read this one, though I enjoyed your review and I can see why it has earned praise.

    • I’ve seen very mixed reviews too – one person writing for an Irish newspapers thought it was the best book they’d read all year. Rather over the top I thought


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