The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room by [Kushner, Rachel]Fans of Rene Denfeld's death row novel The Enchanted may like Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, a similarly uncompromising portrait of life in an American prison.

Romy Hall is a 29-year-old woman serving two life sentences for the murder of her stalker, a regular client of hers at the lapdancing club at which she previously worked. As the novel begins, she is being transferred in shackles by bus to a women's jail close to San Francisco - a location that brings memories of her troubled childhood flooding back.

Romy's story is a harrowing one, as are those of her fellow prisoners, and is a damning critique of the US prison system, which sees defendants sentenced under a 'three strikes' rule to life imprisonment for minor offences like forging cheques. It handles trans prisoners appallingly - a trans woman prisoner is attacked and beaten by the other inmates, while Conan, a trans man, has to make a special application just to be allowed to wear men's underwear. Violence and cruelty is endemic, from the prison staff and the other inmates. A teenage girl suffers a horrific labour before her baby is taken away. Almost every prisoner Romy encounters has, as she does, a back-story of poverty, neglect, abuse, sex work and drug use. The male staff they encounter in the prison system either despise them (the guards) or fetishise and romanticise them (Gordon Hauser, one of the prison tutors, from whose perspective parts of the story are told).

There are times when you will, as a reader, find yourself deeply frustrated with the choices the characters make, but part of the power of the storytelling is that Kushner makes it clear that her characters are well aware of this. Romy, when she tells us that she was raped as a child while out alone at night to attend a midnight gig at a club, addresses it outright:

"You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. You would not have asked him for help. You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did."

It's often the case that the characters Romy meets are violent, cruel or manipulative to others - and yet, even when their behaviour is indefensible, their history makes it, at least, explicable. Romy's friend and cell mate Sammy deliberately dupes a learning-disabled man who repulses her into marrying her, purely so she has access to some money and a place to live, after his letters seeking a prison pen-pal have been sold and resold around the prison: they're valuable to the women prisoners precisely because it's clear from his childlike writing that he'll be easy to control and manipulate. And yet, "I felt sorry for Sammy," says Romy, "who had to look at everyone as a possible victim, when victim meant savior." 

The cruelty and injustice are fairly relentless and as such, this is a bleak read, although it's not without flashes of dark humour, particularly in the sections narrated by Romy herself. The descriptions, particularly of the shabby, dangerous pre-gentrification San Francisco of Romy's childhood, are richly immersive. Despite the grim squalor, this is a beautifully written novel and a deeply affecting one.