The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The Mars Room is an entirely unsentimental look at the US prison system, and those trapped within it. It is told predominantly through the eyes of Romy Hall, a morally complex young woman serving two life sentences for the murder of her stalker.
Though Romy is the focus of the book (and I found her both believable and fascinating as an anti-heroine), Kushner weaves other characters’ perspectives into the story as well. By humanising individuals in this way, yet creating the sense of a collective narrative voice, Kushner did an excellent job of reflecting the way people are swallowed up by the system, making escape from it almost impossible. The narrative is also non-linear, shifting back and forth in time in an almost stream of consciousness manner. This suggested to me the idea that, having lost everything else, memories and stories are all these people have left to sustain them.
The other real strength of the novel for me was its look at the grey area between victim and criminal; asking the reader to consider when that line is crossed, and if it’s ever possible to be both simultaneously. She also brings into play the idea that the system itself is so poorly constructed that it engenders further illicit behaviour; pushing inmates towards theft, drugs, and violence. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Kushner also explores the kind of socioeconomic conditions that can lead to incarceration, flirting with the notion of fate vs. free will. Romy is often told that it’s her own decisions that led her to prison; Kushner wants us to question the extent to which that is true.
With all that appreciation for its technical and thematic prowess, my middling rating may seem odd. I did feel, however, that a touch of the nuance was lost towards the end, when Kushner arguably became a bit too literal or heavy-handed with her message. And whilst I praised its use of multiple perspectives, there were a couple that I felt were unnecessary; adding nothing to the narrative, and serving largely to interrupt the flow of both the pace and story.
I’d say, on balance, this is the kind of book that I admired more than I ‘enjoyed’. Whilst I sped through it, I was compelled far more from a technical and thematic point of view than I was from an emotional one. But it does offer a refreshingly bold and valuable look at a very topical issue, and I’m glad to have read it.
If you’d like to try The Mars Room for yourself, you can find a copy by clicking here, or on the image above. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!