The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

IMG_7843On this week of The Stacks podcast, we discussed The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Our guest for this episode The Stacks Book Club was Becca Tobin, actress best known for her work on Glee, and co-host of Lady Gang podcast. You can listen to our full conversation about The Mars Room right here.

If you’ve not yet heard of the The Mars Room here is a little more information for you.

It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

This book is a bleak examination of lives in proximity to incarceration. While the book mostly centers on Romy and her experiences, we do have other narrators, and other characters who steal our focus for moments throughout the book. The Mars Room feels like a much darker and less “entertaining” look at the prison system than what you might be familiar with from a show like Orange is the New Black (Netflix). One of the things I appreciated most with this book was how dark Kushner was willing to go. She romanticizes nothing. It is all bleak and full of despair. I find that choice to be a strong and refreshing choice.

Throughout the book we meet a lot of flawed and interesting and dynamic characters. People who have been dealt shitty hands and lived hard lives and yet have perspective and depth and hope, and sometimes, though not enough, humor. Through these people Kushner asks us to question our own relationship to the incarcerated, our own thoughts on gender identity, racism, and sexual assault, the power of institutions and more. There are moments in this book where Kushner gets caught up in showing us her point of view, that the book does become a little preachy. Kushner uses characters as devices to make larger points, which leads to some characters being full and dynamic and some feeling like they are just there to prove a point (Romy’s son Jackson comes to mind here).

A major problem with this book has to do with Kushner’s choice of featured characters. While she does include Latina and Black characters in secondary roles, none of the featured narrators are people of color, despite there being ample space to allow for their perspectives. In a book about incarceration, our central character is a pretty white woman. This type of whitewashing of a predominately Black and brown space is irritating at best, and something more cynical at worst.

When faced with the choice to leave the reader with hope or not, Kushner mostly choses not. I respect that. I think we are constantly looking for a silver lining, and sometimes when we strip that false hope away we see a picture of reality that can also be comforting. This book addresses this head on. If the reality of hopelessness that so many people live with scares you, or turns you off, this book isn’t for you, and thats OK. Aside from major issues of representation, I enjoyed this book and suggest it to those who are not faint of heart.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Becca Tobin discussing The Mars Room.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition Limited Issue edition (May 1, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Mars Room on Amazon

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