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'The Mars Room' by Rachel Kushner (book review)

As Lisa Allardice has said in The Guardian, this book will “mark you like a tattoo”, and she’s not wrong. About a third of way through The Mars Room, I nearly put it down. It’s a deeply affecting and an extraordinarily grim work of fiction. Kushner grabs our faces with both hands and forces us to look. To see. She wants to show us something.

Set in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, Romy Hall is due to serve two consecutive life sentences. Kushner recalls Romy’s past in fragments and it becomes clear that Romy’s path has been pre-ordained, that she has washed up in this place because of circumstances she was born into and had little control over. To say it is bleak is an understatement, but I was interested to see what Kushner wanted to say with this book, so I read on through.

At university I studied criminology and my stance on the prison system hasn’t changed. It doesn’t work. The only thing it does is offer some relief to those who prefer to think that it is a safer society if criminals are locked away, and/or it offers a sense of retribution for those who seek it. It’s not correctional, is purely disciplinary and ineffective. At its worst, at great expense to society it creates a world of recidivist criminals who are made to feel their options are hopeless. Reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that every character Kushner here describes would be better served in a place of care and restoration rather than in a prison. A place where people could be built up again, a place to counter, to lift, the desperate lives these prisoners have, largely, been born or pulled down into. Imagine what could be achieved if these people were given an opportunity to make good decisions, to redress the bad. Only some of us get the luxury of repairing or moving on from a bad mistake.

It seems Kushner is of a similar opinion. If this book isn’t a critique of the burgeoning American industrial-style prison system, I don’t know what it is. At one point, the prisoners even discuss the older-style smaller prisons with some degree of sentimentality. America has more correctional facilities than any other country in the world and its rate of incarceration is the highest in the world – from the 1980s ‘War on Drugs’, the rates have risen alarmingly. It is argued too that within the prison system exists slavery. Prisoners can be employed, but in most cases they are paid less than a dollar an hour for their work. These jobs are not necessarily equipping them for life outside – they are employed as a cost-effective way of keeping the prisons running.

Kushner spent time researching her book by actually spending time in a women’s prison and it shows. The book seems entirely realistic, almost as if it's non-fiction. It could be someone’s life story. She uses humour, but it’s never really funny. These are desperate stories – there is violence everywhere the characters turn, and no respite. At one stage Romy explains that all she wants is, “No one bothering me, watching me, harassing me, calling me, following me, sneaking up on me.” The entire novel is Romy trying to find that safe space.

It’s a heavy read, and it will mark you like a tattoo, but it is worth your time. If you have had nothing to do with the prison system, if you don’t spend much time thinking about who the prisoners are who make up an average ‘correctional’ facility, or how they found their way there, it is a chance to slow down and spend some time thinking about it. As much as they are cut off from us, we are also cut off from them. And sometimes, there is a very fine line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and that's also worth reflecting on. (The same could be said for the horrendous plight of refugees in off-shore detention facilities.)

I’ll finish with the blurb on the back cover from Adam Thorpe: “The Mars Room is so sensually convincing it leaves its imprint of steel mesh on your forehead, while its compassion embraces baby-killer and brutal cop alike in the merciless confines of the American justice system. An extraordinary literary achievement.”

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