I started The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner knowing very little about American prison life. The little I did know, I’d learnt from watching the hit American TV series Orange Is The New Black. I finished Kushner’s novel knowing a great deal more about the American justice and penal systems and feeling deeply depressed by what I had learned. The Mars Room lays bare the grim reality of those women living their lives on the margins of modern-day America.
Romy Hall, a 29-year-old former lap dancer convicted of murdering a client who was stalking her, is embarking upon two consecutive life sentences (plus six years) at a Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley.
Outside is the world from which she has been permanently removed; the San Francisco of her impoverished youth, now changed almost beyond recognition, the eponymous Mars Room, where she once lap-danced to make a living, and, most painfully, her beloved seven-year-old son Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged addict mother.
Inside is a new world with a new set of rules that Romy must learn to navigate if she is to survive. Thousands of women spend their days bartering and hustling for the bare necessities needed to survive. Kushner details the achingly repetitive nature of life in prison: the mundane jobs, the disgusting food, the waste of the passing of young lives, the fighting and bitching. The descriptions of prison life are simultaneously entertaining and moving. The irony is that Romy’s previous life in the Mars Room has prepared her well for the game of survival she must now play.
Against the oppressive backdrop of prison life, Romy spends a lot of her time reflecting on her life before prison; a tale of neglect, abuse, exploitation and prostitution. Her character is very real, very flawed and at times very unlikeable. But, we realise, Romy never really stood a chance. The book’s message is dark: those born on the margins of society and into painful poverty, the ‘outsiders’, have very few choices and no way of escaping the lives they were born into. And they repeatedly make the wrong decisions. Romy explains:
‘I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not.’
Kushner’s unsentimental prose does not offer any easy answers, but her ability to portray her deeply flawed characters with empathy and understanding is what makes the novel such a success. This gritty story has no happy ending and is a painful but enlightening reminder of the dark times we find ourselves in.
The Mars Room is published by Jonathan Cape, 352 pages.