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2018 Man Booker Longlist: The Mars Room

Next up for our Man Booker shadow panel is The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner.

Five of our panelists read this book and we were all pretty split. Two of us liked it, two of us didn’t, and one fell in the middle. Here are our reviews.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
2018 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2018
Judges: Nicole, Jen, Book Worm, Lisa, and Anita
Find it/buy it here: The Mars Room

Synopsis (From Amazon): It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

Stunning and unsentimental, The Mars Room demonstrates new levels of mastery and depth in Kushner’s work. It is audacious and tragic, propulsive and yet beautifully refined. As James Wood said in The New Yorker, her fiction “succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.”

Jen’s Review: Overall I enjoyed this book and thought it was a high quality novel that deserves a place on the longlist. My ratings here are lower than my goodreads rating (4 stars) because the author’s choice to use short chapters with alternative perspectives detracted from my ability to truly connect with any one character and made the plot feel choppy and disconnected. I recognize that this was likely the point, but for a story that had the potential to elicit very strong emotions, I felt rather indifferent. I did think it was an interesting exploration of the prison system (and the circumstances leading to incarceration) in America but it didn’t make me feel any great emotional reaction.

I do think the brilliance of the novel is in the way that Kushner recreates a sense of restriction and limitation of freedom. This thread runs throughout the novel, highlighting the ways in which poverty and limited options in childhood create limited options in adulthood, particularly for women, who are the heart of this book. Women in this book are never free, even when they are not incarcerated. Their lives are limited and constrained in countless ways. The parallels that Kushner drew between life in the strip club and life in prison were genius. There’s no doubt that this is a clever and meticulously researched novel.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character Development: 3/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 16/20

Anita’s Review: For me, this book ambled along in the three star realm until the ending where I felt it improved.  I love when an author can take essentially bad characters and make them sympathetic (a la Lolita), and I thought Kushner did that to some degree throughout the book, but in a more masterful fashion when describing Romy’s stalker, Kurt.  The characters were just generally plain interesting; I felt like I was introduced to people I would never know in real life.

My major knock on the book was with the plot.  I didn’t mind the disjointedness as many characters were introduced and then put on the back burner, but I couldn’t help but think that the author’s in-depth research was just a little too in evidence.  It read like non-fiction to me in so many ways.  I love non-fiction, so I am fine with that, but I expect a different kind of narrative arc in a novel, and honestly, this book didn’t deliver.  I can put down and pick up a non-fiction read with ease; and with this book, I felt the same way . . .and that’s not the quality of a great work of fiction.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 3/4
Plot Development:2 /4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 14/20

Nicole’s Review: What must the Booker judges think of America?  Based on the books I’m reading,  they must have a bleak impression.

I didn’t enjoy this book in the slightest.  I can’t even say I appreciated it.  I can acknowledge that the book was structurally sound, and it’s filled with important topics ones that fiction surely should explore.  Poverty’s impact on opportunity, the prison, system, and of course treatment of women because … always.

The book missed for me in a couple areas – I made no connection with the any of the characters, and I had little sympathy for any of them as individuals.  Second, I found the book to be emotionless.  As with Sabrina I was left with a similar hopelessness.  Things suck but life goes on.  That’s hard for me.  I still have hope.  I want to believe that things are going to get better for people, especially prisoners (and poor people, and women …)

I really don’t need my tough subjects sugar-coated. I just think there was a way to tell this important story in a way that made me want to root for the downtrodden.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 2/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total: 11/20

Lisa’s Review: I did not especially enjoy reading The Mars Room. The writing is straightforward and clean, which I appreciate, but not especially inventive. The main character, Romy, holds the reader at a distance throughout the book. This may be intentional, and yet… she failed to draw me in. There was almost no writing about her 5 years with her son, and so when she thinks about him in prison, I had no sense of their relationship. When the act that landed Romy in prison is described at the end of the book, it is no surprise at all – it is what I expected. This book reminded me of another I read recently: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. Both books describe the bleak lives of people in poverty, addicted to drugs, unable to protect their children. It can be illuminating, consciousness-expanding, or heartbreaking to read about lives so different from the one I live. I glimpsed only a bit of that experience with this book.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character Development: 2/4
Plot Development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total: 11/20

Book Worm’s Review: This book had me hooked from the first page and several passages really struck a chord with me. While the central theme of justice for women can be bleak and depressing, the writing was beautiful. The story is told through the interconnected narratives of several characters most of whom are serving time. The story moves backwards and forwards in time as we learn more about each character and specifically what event landed Romy Hall in jail, friendships are formed, enemies made, the prison system is explored and justice is shown to be anything but just.

I liked the diverse characters and the way that they came across as real people and not caricatures.

I will say the ending leaves you thinking and I probably have more questions than answers, something that would normally drive me mad but for this book it seems fitting.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality: 4/5
Character Development: 4/4
Plot Development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 18/20

Overall score from the panel = 14/20

Ranking of longlist books:
1. The Mars Room (14/20)
2. Sabrina (9.5/20)

We want to hear from you. Have you read the book? What did you think? Does it deserve to make the shortlist? Why or why not?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Susie #

    As I mentioned on Goodreads, I felt as though I could have just watched a few episodes of Orange is the New Black instead of reading The Mars Room. It did absolutely nothing for me. It took way longer for me to read than it should have because I just wasn’t drawn to pick it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 14, 2018
  2. Anita, I’m really surprised. I though for sure I’d adequately predicted your response to this and I was completely wrong!

    Like

    August 14, 2018
    • Anita #

      I am glad I am not completely predictable! I’m sorry you didn’t like this more, but I definitely understand where you are coming from . . .

      Like

      August 15, 2018
  3. Tracy S #

    I liked this one, but it felt a bit cold- almost more like a report or personal interest piece on the prison system. I did learn a lot, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 14, 2018
    • I agree

      Like

      August 14, 2018
    • Anita #

      I, also, agree . . .I enjoyed it in spite of this flaw.

      Like

      August 15, 2018
  4. I haven’t read this – or many of the books on the list this year as it happens – but I always enjoy your different takes on the same book. It’s fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 15, 2018
    • that’s good to know, sometimes I feel like I’m wrong when I differ from the group. (Which is really hard because I’m pretty sure I’m always right 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

      August 15, 2018
      • Every year I find myself thinking the list is the most debate provoking yet and then the next year comes around and it seems to have even more titles on it that divide opinion. Just think what it must be like to be a fly on the wall in the judging room, lol.

        Liked by 2 people

        August 15, 2018
  5. Gail #

    At first I did not enjoy the writing, too constrained, too cold but by half way through I was caught and realized that the constraint works well with what the writing is reflecting, namely the limitations placed on these character’s lives. I agree that the plot isn’t much. The ending is no surprise but what I did find surprising is how I came to have empathy with the “creeps” or the secondary characters: Gordon and Kennedy, Serenity and Conan. She managed to keep me at arm’s length from the main character but at least have an inkling of concern for the creeps who normally I would have found disgusting. Also, the insight into the prison system was profound.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 16, 2018
    • Yes, I agree with you about the style being intentional to fit the message. I do think it was a very clever book and I guess it will make the shortlist but we shall see.

      Like

      August 16, 2018

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