This review by Joanna Lee (Communications Administrator at Faber & Faber) is part of a series of reviews of the 2018 Man Booker Shortlist.
Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a book that hits you with a world so perfectly formed, so intense, that it knocks you to the ground – disoriented, intimidated and deeply sad in equal measure. It paces the confines of the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, where our narrator, Romy Hall, is serving two life sentences (plus six years).
The uncanny oddness of being condemned to serve two ‘life’ sentences (plus six years) isn’t unintentional. Logic is thrown out of the barred windows at Stanville, bulldozed by rules so rigid as to be destructive.
Kushner’s great skill lies in exposing these bars as hollow. The truth doesn’t matter – both to the state and the inmates. There is a rumour that Betty LaFrance’s ‘legs are insured for millions’, but Romy doesn’t buy it. ‘You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.’ The still surface of the slick, smooth prose hints at the anger and crowbars beneath.
Spiking the narrative bravado are disarming punches of pathos: ‘The women made greeting cards by hand in emulation of a machine-printed corporate look: their best work resembled cards you could buy at Rite Aid.’ Even the ‘best work’ of these women – crafted with effort, made to be individual and unique – are casually indistinguishable from mass-produced bits of tat costing mere cents. Sad, right?
The detail in the book is immense, both to its credit and its detriment. It makes for a totally immersive reading experience, but at times can feel superfluously long. Kushner builds a labyrinth filled with lifelike characters, meticulous research and myriad intricacies; but this means it’s all too easy to get a little lost.
Overall, I’d totally recommend this book. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, spend them hanging out with Kushner’s company of inmates. They’re worth your time.