Sunday 21 October 2018

Review by Eliot John of "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room is Rachel Kushner’s third novel, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It centres on Romy Hall, her experiences in the American prison system and the lives of women who are also prisoners. 

In the first chapter, Romy’s narration describes a man from her past who "didn’t understand about people who grew up in the city, the nihilism, the inability to go to college or join the straight world, get a regular job or believe in the future." The people that she describes are those at the centre of Kushner’s novel. The Mars Room is not an easy read, and I refrain from saying that it’s not an enjoyable read because I found that I couldn’t put it down once I had started. The tone of the novel is nihilistic and delivers a bleak and realistic depiction of life in an American prison.

The women are treated as uneducated “imbeciles” although we see that they are anything but. They manage to make "home meals" out of creamer, stolen items from the dining hall and Raman’s that you couldn’t imagine. Conan (a transvestite) starts a dildo-business, forging the phallic-objects out of wood whenever the guard turns a blind eye. The flush system on the toilet turns into their version of The Royal Mail. It both highlights the desperation of these women, and lack of amenities, whilst also channelling a dark and bizarre humour.

In recent years, Orange is the New Black has made prison life exciting and almost glamorous, yet The Mars Room buries itself in the political jeopardy that prisoners actually face. Betty LaFrance, an infamous inmate on death row and former model, brags about her life before prison and the evidence for her conviction, "a photo of her lying nude under a pile of money." However, after the postal-toilet flushes up the actual photo, Romy and Sammy are left speechless, staring at a corpse-like body buried under stacks of dollars. 

Sporadically the narration shifts to follow the guard, Gordon Hauser. The focus of these chapters drifts to the land around his cabin and the general destruction of American land due to oil farming: "Machines shook the almond trees in synchronous violence." You can’t help but compare this trope to the women we learn so much about. Is the mechanical American prison system nothing more than a destructive force? Kushner encourages readers to fight for a reform of the system through realistic stories and experiences. 

The Mars Room begins on "Chain Night," the evening that Romy and sixty other inmates are shuffled into prison like cattle – and you will feel like you are one of them.

About the reviewer
Eliot John is an MA Creative Writing student who specialises in flash fiction and monologues. She is currently writing her first novel on feminism and rape culture. Recurring themes explored in her work include loss of identity, sexuality, ethics, and the vices of modern culture. 

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