Wednesday 17 April 2024
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Randy Kraft’s OC Book Blog: “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room Book Cover

Orange is not the new black, it’s just black.

Rachel Kushner is one of those writers who grab you at once or confound you. Or both. In this, her fourth novel, she grabs you and holds you despite, or because of, the subject matter: women in prison.

deals with how they got there, and how they survive, told in short takes between past and present. She does not gloss over a thing. I suspect, the attention to detail is as scrupulous and intense a portrait of prison life as written by an outsider. And, beyond all that, page-turner fiction.

We meet the narrator, Romy, on an overnight journey to prison.

They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule, they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us…

Romy has killed her stalker and is sentenced to sequential long periods of time in prison. In effect, she has little hope.

The title, by the way, refers to a seedy strip club in San Francisco where Romy gave lap dance and where she rose above her compatriots, until she got into trouble.

If you’d showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night.

Her descriptions of the city by the bay are also elegant and detailed, and a harsh contrast to its high-tech persona. She has left her son behind with her mother, a ne’er-do-well herself, and the shadow of the mother-daughter and mother-son relationship hovers over the story. Kushner doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for Romy, or any of the other memorable characters, or excuse them. She tells a tale meant to inform. You will alternately shield your eyes or cry for them.

More often you may marvel at the atrocities that result from the inequities that pervade American culture. On display painfully and intricately in the lives of these women.

My only critique is that Romy’s remarkable perception and insights make for extraordinary narration, the narrative of a well-educated erudite persona, which does not fit the character. Still, you put that out of your mind in favor of the narrative.

Did you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won’t ever hear anyone describe a man’s appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A woman who looks cheap doesn’t have to be respected, and so she has a cheap value, a certain cheap value.

This is prison life beyond cliché and reality television. Not only about inmates, but also the bystanders, men and women, the opportunists, in and out of prison, and those who might offer redemption. Like a Russian novel with all its drama and passions. A very good read.

Just out in paperback or for your favorite e-reader.


Randy Kraft is a retired journalist, an active book reviewer and fiction writer. She also occasionally teaches and coaches aspiring novelists, and has been the OC Book Blogger on this site since its inception. Born and bred in New York City, Randy resides in Dana Point. Her first novel Colors of the Wheel published in 2014 and her second, Signs of Life, in 2016. In recent years, she has published several short stories in literary magazines and her first collection, Rational Women, was released in 2020. (Maple57Press)

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