Man Booker shortlist review #5 – “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner

I have finally finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, my penultimate read on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. I blogged last week that had been finding it quite hard-going. I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘difficult’ book, like Everything Under, where it helps to be aware of the Oedipus myth in order to be able to enjoy it. No, I just found the pace of the book very slow and, I’m afraid, uneventful.

The Mars Room imgThe story concerns Romy Hall, a young woman whom we first meet in a prison van en route to Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. Romy was convicted of a brutal murder and has been given two life sentences plus six years. Romy worked as a lap dancer at The Mars Room nightclub in San Francisco and it was a former customer at the nightclub that she killed. Romy is at once similar but different to her fellow convicts. For one thing she has a seven year old child, Jackson, whose welfare she becomes increasingly concerned about during her incarceration, and she also completed high school, so she is considerably more educated than many of those around her.

 

Romy quickly finds her way in the prison and most of the book is about prison life, the community, the social norms and the formal and informal rules that dictate life inside. There is also the cast of characters, the gender non-binary, the ambiguous sexualities, the weak and the strong, the hierarchy. The women appear to have two things in common, one implicit, they are mostly racial minorities, the other explicit, they are nearly all poor and of low educational attainment.

To that extent the book is, in my view, largely a political one. The author has insisted this is not the case, preferring to think of it as showing the humanity, the variety of life and the personalities in prisons in America, where society is normally inclined to dehumanise and to view homogeneously, the prison population. However, I think the political message is inescapable – that prison is a dumping ground for the poor and under-educated that society does not know what to do with. Kushner is also exposing the twisted logic of differing sentences for similar crimes. I found the comparison of the crimes committed by Stanville’s residents to the killings of civilians by the American state in Iraq, and the notion of double standards, a little clumsy, but she has a point.

The book is not just about Romy and prison life, there are the back stories too: the unsavoury characters both Romy and some of the other women knew before they ended up in prison, many of them no better than the convicted women, and the events and circumstances of their lives, which most of us will never experience. This is the world of an American underclass. An underclass which usually ends up in the corrupt and failing (in Kushner’s view) penal system. There is also the character of Hauser, the prison teacher who Romy hopes might help her find out what has happened to Jackson. It is strictly against the rules for Hauser to do this, but there is something about Romy which appeals to him, and he breaks with procedure when he finds himself inexplicably attracted to her. (Spoiler alert: I was hoping this storyline might go further but it doesn’t). Hauser represents grey, upstanding, dutiful middle America which wants to do the right thing, recognising that some of those in jail have some good qualities, but which is clueless and naïve, and which cannot deal with the brutal realities of prisoners and prison life.

This is an exposing book and Kushner spent a lot of time inside jails in America, talking to women prisoners, trying to understand their lives and their perspectives, and for that she is to be commended. Whilst I appreciated what the author is trying to do here, and certainly it was an eye opener, for me the book didn’t go anywhere. Some have described the ending, where Romy is driven to extreme action on account of her son, as intense and thrilling. For me it wasn’t. I found it anti-climactic.

The book reminded me of those Louis Theroux documentaries, where he went into American jails, and talked to prisoners. The people he met were a complex mix of terrifying, troubled, under-educated and deeply in need. And mostly black and Hispanic. The book is a bit like that, but, for me, with not quite enough of a story going on.

Recommended if you like Louis Theroux documentaries about American jails.

Have you read The Mars Room or any other of the books on this year’s Man Booker shortlist? If so, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.

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Time for a little light reading

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have recently been reviewing each of the Man Booker shortlisted books. It’s a month since the winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, was announced, and I still haven’t finished all six books – I don’t know how on earth I thought I’d get them all read before the gala dinner! I’ve found them all pretty heavy going, to be honest, which is perhaps why it has taken me so long. And, I have to say, it’s been a bit bleak too!

The Mars Room imgSo much so that I had to have a break from all the heaviness to read something a little more uplifting and which didn’t tax my brain quite so much. I wasn’t very well last week and simply couldn’t face into The Mars Room (next on my Man Booker list) – if you have heard it is bleak, well it is! So far (not quite finished it yet). So, with my blanket, hot water bottle and cups of tea to hand I settled onto the sofa and read Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop cover to cover in one day. I simply could not put it down.

 

 

The Music Shop imgThis book came to my attention last year. I really liked the sound of it and recommended it in one of my ‘what to look our for this season’ blogs, so it was on my TBR list. Then I saw Rachel speak at a Writers & Artists Conference I was at in September. She was such a wonderful speaker, really warm, authentic and engaging, that I had to get a copy of this book and have been eager to start it. It was a joy and just what I needed, when I was feeling unwell and when my brain was starting to hurt from the Man Booker. Look out for my review of The Music Shop next week.

 

The Mars Room is quite good, but, for me, just unremittingly bleak. Yes, good fiction should challenge us, but sometimes you just need something that makes you feel up rather than down. I’ve found it quite a dark shortlist this year and I haven’t even started The Overstory yet which, since it is meant to be about climate change, I am fully expecting to be a sobering if not depressing read. Maybe that reflects the times we find ourselves in. It’s not just the subject matter though; some of the books, though I have admired them, have, at times, felt like wading through treacle. I felt like that about Everything Under, and I’m rather getting that feeling about The Mars Room. It is only the colourful prose style, with its American prison vernacular, that is keeping my attention at the moment, because it has little story to speak of, it seems to me.

The Music Shop on the other hand, was all story, all character, all cliffhanger, all page-turner. This high-brow literature, which, don’t get me wrong, I dearly love and support, is all very well, but sometimes you just need a jolly good read. Especially when your sinuses are blocked and your head hurts!

So it’s more Rachel Joyce on the TBR list for me, and a second wind to finish The Mars Room and complete that shortlist.

Happy reading everyone!

Are you drawn to literature that is dark or do you feel reading should always be about pleasure?

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Theatre Review: “Hamilton”, London

I first became aware of the Broadway show Hamilton when we visited family in the US in 2016. I was told that if (when!) this came to London I should beg, steal or borrow tickets because it was sensational. Yes, I said, politely, thinking that a show about the Founding Fathers of America probably would not do as well in the UK. It has. And it is. Sensational.

Hamilton 1My youngest daughter, a keen singer, started getting into the show a year or so ago. She has been listening to and singing along to the soundtrack almost continuously ever since. When it was her birthday earlier this year I decided to get her tickets. I was astonished to discover how difficult these were to obtain (and how expensive!), so she has been waiting patiently for almost six months to enjoy her birthday gift. Last week, during half term, we travelled to London to see the show. It was worth the wait and she promptly declared that it was the best experience of her life. For me, seeing her enjoying something so much and how she has engaged so wholeheartedly with the story, the music and the ethos of the production, has the been the greatest pleasure.

I’ve seen a few musicals over the years, and many of the biggest ones, but they would not normally be my first choice for theatre. I prefer drama. Also, I find that some of these productions, when they have had very long runs, can become tired. Hamilton has been at the Victoria Palace for over a year now and it certainly has not run out of steam. The show was a tour de force from the opening bars to the final curtain. I must also say that, knowing the songs as well as I do (they’ve been in my background for months!) added to my enjoyment.

I knew next to nothing about Alexander Hamilton the man. He was the brains behind the United States financial system, the first Treasury Secretary, influential in George Washington’s presidency and founder of the national bank. As an orphan who climbed his way to the top of politics, he embodies the American dream of self-made success. He was killed in a duel by his long-time rival Aaron Burr in his late forties. Quite a life.

As you may know, Hamilton has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, mostly for its originality. The music of the show incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B and soul, unusual for this type of production, and it is both refreshing and memorable. It is also well-known for its colour-conscious casting of non-white actors. Whilst none of the main protagonists in the story were actually people of colour, the aim was to draw attention to how black and non-white history is so often under-acknowledged and under-discussed. It seemed appropriate that we went to see the show during black history month which aims to redress that balance.

So, a stunning show that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I now consider myself a fan and would definitely see it again. The energy of the show left both my daughter and I on a real high.

Have you seen Hamilton? If so, what did you think?

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Man Booker Review #4 – “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

This was my fourth read from this year’s Man Booker shortlist and the most conventional I have read so far. The novel begins in Barbados in 1832 on a plantation owned by Erasmus Wilde, an Englishman who inherited the estate from an uncle on his mother’s side. He has been forced to manage the business as his father, a famous explorer who has spent most of his life away from home and family, shows no interest. As you might expect, Erasmus runs the plantation with cruelty and treats the slaves he has inherited (and now owns) as inhuman; they represent nothing more to him than units of work who must be managed and mistreated in order to keep them functioning. George Washington Black (‘Wash’) is a young boy at this time who has known nothing in his life apart from slavery. He lives on the plantation mainly in the care of Big Kit, a fellow slave who protects but also, at times, treats him cruelly, for what she sees as his own good, to harden him up for the life he will lead.

Washington Black imgWashington Black’s life is turned around, however, when Erasmus’s younger brother, Christopher, or ‘Titch’, arrives at the plantation. He is an inventor, a man of science like his father, who does not share his brother’s views on slavery. Titch has come to Barbados in order to work on a flying machine he has designed and asks his brother for a helper. Erasmus loans him Washington Black and the boy goes to live in Titch’s quarters, helping him with drawings and experiments as well as practical household tasks. Titch discovers that Washington has considerable artistic talent as well as abilities which will be useful in his science projects and he teaches him to read. This change in Wash’s circumstances means he can probably never go back to being with the other slaves and the question is posed whether Titch has served his protégé well.

A cousin of the Wilde brothers, Philip, arrives at Faith plantation to convey the news that the men’s father is missing presumed dead. Titch is devastated, but for Erasmus this represents yet more administrative burden as it means he must now run all the family’s business. Philip remains at Faith plantation for many weeks, staying in Titch’s quarters, so Wash gets to know him well. He is a malign presence; on one occasion, while out with Titch observing the preparations for the flying machine he shouts an instruction to Wash that causes him to stand too close to a device that explodes. Wash suffers disfiguring facial burns and it is as if Philip knew it would happen.

One day, Philip takes Wash, to help him on a shooting trip, during which the troubled Philip turns the gun on himself and commits suicide. It is immediately clear to 12 year old Wash that, as the only witness, he will be blamed and most likely executed. Wash returns to Faith to tell Titch, who is also quick to realise the implications. Titch decides they must leave immediately and he decides to launch the flying machine he has been working on. The night is a stormy one, however, and not ideal conditions for the launch of the ‘Cloud-cutter’, a bizarre contraption that seems to be a cross between a hot-air balloon and a rowing boat. Though it travels for a short distance, they have to finally crash land it on a boat in the ocean. Fortunately, the ship’s captain is sympathetic and allows the pair to sail with them to America.

Wash is now an escaped slave, and one instantly recognisable by his scarred face. Titch takes Wash with him on a search for his missing father (he does not believe that he died), but it becomes apparent that he wishes to separate from him. The two eventually find Titch’s father in the frozen north of Canada, and it is clear that the relationship between the two men is a difficult one that leaves Titch troubled. During a blizzard, Titch leaves their camp, and Wash finds himself alone and having to fend for himself, even more so when the old man eventually does die.

The rest of the novel is about how Wash makes his way in the world, evades capture by a slave-hunter and eventually finds himself in England, pursuing his passion for biology. Always, however, he is preoccupied by Titch’s abandonment of him and by the mystery of his own early life when he was transported from Africa. He finds some success and a settled life, but he becomes frustrated with the fact that his achievements will never be fully recognised, even in abolitionist England, because he is a black former slave.

This is an interesting and fascinating novel and I found the story deeply engaging. The characters are well-drawn and authentic and the issue of black slavery, the horrors of it and how it dehumanised all its victims, is vividly explored. The novel is broad in scope and beautifully written and I enjoyed it very much. Like most of the books I have read so far from the shortlist (The Long Take excepted) there is a drop in pace about half to two thirds of the way through, and I do think this is an editing issue. There are parts that could have been slimmed down in my view.

That issue aside, it remains a great story, and I recommend it.

How did you rate this Man Booker shortlisted book?

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