One of my favourite times of the year is always when the Man Booker longlist is announced. I’m a massive lover of literary prizes, whatever genre or form they take, but I think the Booker has a special place in my heart. It was one of the first big prizes which came to my attention and it’s had some amazing writers on its lists. Even so, the Man Booker isn’t perfect and there is a habit of quite similar books or authors being nominated. It’s actually what makes this year so exciting, as the diversity this year is great, including not only a thriller/crime novel but also the first ever graphic novel to be nominated!
One of the books that caught my attention straight away this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. For a start I liked the very striking design, with the almost garish clash of colours and fonts. Secondly, the plot intrigued me straight away. The blurb tells us that Romy Hall is at the start of her two life consecutive life sentences (plus six years) at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. She has been torn away from her old world and all she knows. Away from The Mars Room strip club she once worked, away from her life in San Francisco, away, even, from her seven year old son, Jackson. Instead she is faced with lifetime imprisonment where she must learn to survive and procure the bare essentials. But news from outside the four walls can still filter through, and what she learns will soon challenge her beyond anything else she has endured.
I will admit that I felt somewhat disconnected at the start of this novel. The narrative chops and changed quite a lot between the present time frame, where we find Romy being transferred to Stanville, and the past, where Romy reflects on her youth and previous life. I found it a bit frustrating at first as I thought the more compelling part was the present day scenes, yet we initially do not spend that much intensive time in them. I think the changing of the scenes does helps to establish Romy’s character, but the rest of the book also continues to do this anyway as the plot unfolds.
Indeed, this changing in the scenes and time frames is also mirrored by a changing in narrative. We don’t just follow Romy’s character in this book, but also several other characters who we meet or are somehow connected along the way. I did think that these were effective at times to fill in the blanks and create a tension between what could be happening in the plot. Other times, however, I felt as though I was wondering what the point or purpose was in the creation of a certain character, especially as we seem to follow their story only partially before being cut off completely.
My favourite parts of this book, and the bits which really stood out to me were by far the prison scenes. This was one of the biggest aspects of the book that made me want to pick it up and they did not disappoint. It’s quite refreshing to learn a bit more about not only prison life in America, but also what it is like for women in particular. I think prisons are often seen as quite a male dominated sphere, with women getting a somewhat easier deal. This book however gives us several shocking and often inhumane scenes which prove the brutality of this life. The author attempts to peel back the layers somewhat, revealing the realities and dispelling some of the outside views. One part in particular still sticks in my mind, in which a newly arrived woman goes into labour and is given barely any aid. Even the other women who try to help her are abused by the staff and later punished.
One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the conversations it arouses regarding the entire idea of a prison system and the debate surrounding punishment and reform/re-education. By examining not only Romy but also several other women we begin to ask ourselves if people can be changed, and what the likelihood is that someone will become a repeat offender. This is true for many of the women in this novel, yet you still wonder if things could be different for them each time. The idea of death row is also a topic which pulled me right in. Living in the UK where we don’t have the death penalty its really quite fascinating to wonder how a society would function around this as well as exploring the idea that some people can be waiting for years in prison just to meet their death. It’s a shocking reality and one that I would have loved to have explored further.
I think this book has proved that Rachel Kushner is a very talented writer with some very good ideas. Personally I don’t know if she is the kind of author I would naturally gravitate towards again. I didn’t feel as if the plot came together quite enough for me as a whole, or that I was given enough of any of the characters to really get to know them. Even though Romy is the main character and the largest pull of the novel, we don’t always follow her and spend quite a lot of time in her the past. Whilst I think this is a good reflection on being incarcerated and how your mind would naturally drift back into the past, it just didn’t pull me in as I had hoped. I think the main disappointment was that I wanted more about the prison system than I got, and each time I became involved in something I felt as if the author retreated to something else.
Whilst I can see the merits of this book and why the judges have given it a place on the longlist, it isn’t my personal winner so far. Even so, this is a book written by a talented writer with the ability to pick apart controversial topics.
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book by the press team over at Jonathan Cape (Vintage). I will only ever post my own honest reviews and I will not write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.