11 June 2021

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This is the first book I picked up based off a recommendation from Juliet Litman of The Ringer Podcast Network. Every so often she will mention a few books she is enjoying, and she mentioned The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Reading, watching, or hearing anything about prison usually makes me extremely anxious, but I decided to give this one a go after seeing Jonathan Franzen praise it as Kushner's best book yet. I am also in a big fiction-only phase right now, so it seemed to fit with my current reading interest.

One reason I suspect Juliet Litman enjoyed the book was that a lot of it is set in San Francisco and paints a grimy picture of it. I visited San Fran with my family back in the 2010s and enjoyed the trip (save for the time difference). It is such a strange major city, with constantly changing weather and extreme peaks of poverty and wealth. The Mars Room is definitely focused on areas of poverty, and how its central character Romy Hall grew up.

The trouble with San Francisco was that I could never have a future in that city, only a past."

Before being incarcerated, Romy worked as a stripper at the Mars Room. We get snippets of her childhood and her early twenties. This includes the birth of her son Jackson and the two men interwoven into her life: Jimmy Darling and Kurt Kennedy. I love all the name choices Kushner settled on, it feels very neo-noir to me. 

Rachel Kushner

Most of the book is set in prison where Romy is serving a life sentence without parole. We meet a variety of different characters she interacts with including prisoners and staff - particularly a GED instructor who takes interest in Romy. She seems mostly resigned to her sentence, but something happens mid-way through the book that pushes her to change her situation.

I witnessed doom, though. It was around me. But at the time, I thought the bad luck of other people reaffirmed that I was doing okay." 

I won't reveal much else because uncovering how she ended up incarcerated and what she was going to do while in prison really drives the book forward. The Mars Room is a shortish read at 352 pages. It is simply written and I think I could recommend this to anyone and they would mildly-to-moderately enjoy it. 

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