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Archive: Other Books > The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner (3.5 stars)

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message 1: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2666 comments Booker longlist #1, and 3.5 stars for me. Initially, I rounded this up to 4, but I've decided my enjoyment of the book was too limited so I've rounded it down instead.

This is a picture of the people we put in prison and how they get there, and the systemic and societal biases that deprive them of legal defences or hope.

The book centres on Romy (the first person narrator), who has been given two life sentences for killing her stalker. Her young son is placed in the care of her mother, from whom she is largely estranged. Romy is smart and educated and before her arrest, she's managed to make her own way with determination and a certain amount of luck. But her background and that of her fellow inmates is shockingly bleak - drugs and alcohol, homelessness, inescapable poverty compounded by institutionalised racism, prostitution, manipulation by and violence from men (and sometimes from other women) throughout their lives.

This is an important and compelling subject. Rachel Kushner has clearly done her homework, and lots of it. The book's at its best in the passages featuring Romy - I really liked the writing style of her voice. It's so direct that it's confrontational at times, but that suits the subject matter (and Romy's character) very well. I also really liked the end.

But the importance of the subject is the book's downfall too. It ends up being an extended lecture about deprivation and violence. A clever one, for sure, but (with the exception of a couple of breathtakingly upsetting passages and some interesting secondary characters, particularly Conan and Sammy) it made me switch off rather than raise my activist hackles. It took me several days to read, and most of it was a grind.

I think this is because the central story is thin, though Kushner makes as much of it as she can, by using flashbacks. The switches in POV don't help. Gordon is the good guy, but is an annoyingly naive onlooker. At least he has a bit of a role though, tangential though it is. Others don't fare so well. The quotes from the Unabomber are just weird. Doc, the corrupt policeman, who's segregated for his own safety in a men's prison is an execrable human being. I don't see the point of having been forced to be in his company at all, except to illustrate another aspect of the prison system and the lengths to which some men will go to abuse women. There's a character for every angle of misery (eg a transgender inmate whose sole purpose is to illustrate that aspect of the system). The prison officers are uniformly stupid and horrific - I suppose they're meant to represent the inhumanity of the system, but portraying them all in that caricatured way was unnecessary and unrealistic.

Altogether, a disappointment. I appreciate what it was trying to do, and it could easily get shortlisted for the Booker, I think, but I just didn't connect with it in the way I'd hoped to do.

message 2: by Meli (new)

Meli (melihooker) | 3673 comments Hmmm... I am reading this right now, but not even to page 100, so I can't really comment on the points you made yet. She's in prison, but there hasn't been much pontificating on the system and its flaws or the cycle of violence that potentially landed them there.

So far I like it.

I will report back when I finish :)

message 3: by Susie (new)

Susie | 4488 comments A big fail for me. As I have mentioned before, to me it was as if she was regurgitating a few episodes of Orange is the New Black, and less effectively.

message 4: by Nicole D. (new)

Nicole D. | 1497 comments Great review Kate!

message 5: by Nicole D. (new)

Nicole D. | 1497 comments (and completely agree about Doc ... added nothing to the story, IMHO ... )

message 6: by Meli (new)

Meli (melihooker) | 3673 comments Susie wrote: "A big fail for me. As I have mentioned before, to me it was as if she was regurgitating a few episodes of Orange is the New Black, and less effectively."

Oh wow, I am surprised to hear that because I didn't realize it was a statement about prison life so much as just a fictionalized account for literary art's sake... er, I guess maybe you can't just have a story set in prison without making some statement about it, perhaps.

I have seen many accolades for this book but never a comparison to OITNB, or it could be I was skimming and not reading the detail in these reviews, which I tend to do.

Very curious to see where I land with this one.

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