The Mars Room is a powerful prison novel that you won't forget

Featuring a fascinating cast of characters, Rachel Kushner's well-researched novel paints a shockingly detailed picture of the mass incarceration system

03 February 2019 - 00:00 By Kate Sidley
Rachel Kushner, author of 'The Mars Room'.
Rachel Kushner, author of 'The Mars Room'.
Image: Supplied

At 29, Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. "I don't plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all," she tells us. "The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not."

The novel paints a shockingly detailed picture of the mass incarceration system and daily life at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility - the posturing and competition, the regular and unchecked violence, the moments of friendship or tenderness, and the simple, relentless grind of blind and brutal institutionalism.

Author Rachel Kushner's research is remarkable and well woven into the narrative. Who knew that an ice cream could be smuggled through the plumbing system or that alcohol could be brewed from fermented ketchup?

Kushner's research is remarkable ... who knew that alcohol could be brewed from fermented ketchup?

The focus shifts between prison life, Romy's early life, and the events that brought her to this place. Wild and shiftless, she'd been racketing around the streets of San Francisco since her teens - experimenting with booze, drugs, boys, casual shoplifting.

Hers was not the San Francisco of the Golden Gate Bridge and the photogenic trams. She supported herself and her young son by giving lap dances to men for $20 at The Mars Room, "the very seediest and most circuslike place there is ... If you'd showered you had a competitive edge . If your tattoos weren't misspelled you were hot property".

It was here that she met the man who stalked her, and who she killed.

'The Mars Room' by Rachel Kushner, Simon & Schuster, R390.
'The Mars Room' by Rachel Kushner, Simon & Schuster, R390.
Image: Supplied

Two male characters - a dirty cop and a do-gooder teacher working in the prison - have their own intermittent chapters, but this is really a story about women in America.

"Your situation is due one-hundred percent to choices you made and actions you took," she's told by one of the prison guards. But of course the situation is more complex.

Romy and most of the women started life poor and poorly parented, and their lives followed a downward trajectory with dismal predictability. They were abandoned, abused, addicted, duped and, at least in Romy's case, horribly let down by her allocated defender and the criminal justice system.

One of the book's enduring themes is the illusion of choice and the absurdity of the notion of free will. There's no hope of release for Romy. In so far as there's a story arc to offer some potential redemption, it's her quest to find and communicate with her son.

It's a bleak story, but it's not a depressing read. The cast of prison characters is fascinating and Romy's voice and insight is distinctive, confiding, smart; even humorous at times. It's a powerful book that you won't forget.

Our reviewer, Kate Sidley, gave 'The Mars Room' 4/4 stars.