I passed on reading The Mars Room some time back when the synopsis pointed toward what I suspected was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Orange Is The New Black. However, my granddaughter brought it to our (safe) covid retreat over July 4, so it fell into my lap, so to speak, so I dived in, so to speak.
Turns out my original assessment was about half right. It’s definitely a women-behind-bars narrative with plenty of gruesome details and sex galore. But it’s also a sort of coming-of-age novel with a thing or two to say about the dilemmas of kids without support or stable families. There is also, of course, the matter of the criminal mind per se, but protagonist Roma doesn’t quite make the grade in that category, which makes her a more sympathetic character than she would otherwise be.
Roma Hall grew up wild on the streets of San Francisco thanks to a neglectful mom and a splendid imagination for getting into trouble without getting caught. The Mars Room itself is a San Francisco strip club/lap dancing establishment way down on any scale of trashiness. Roma sees it as a perfect fit for her random lifestyle because for Roma 1) grinding is easier than talking, 2) nobody gives a shit when or if you report for work, 3) the money is better than minimum-wage burger-flipping or cosmetic-hawking alternatives. She ends up in the clink because she kills a stalker who fastens on to her in The Mars Room.
I recently finished The New Jim Crow. Roma is white, but, having been enlightened somewhat by Jim Crow I can see that bad as it is for people of color, the horrors visited upon Roma in our criminal injustice system are equal-opportunity events.
The key element is that no one in the system wants to go to the trouble of putting people on trial–too expensive and time-consuming, especially for overworked, burned-out public defenders. Plus, in the category of sympathetic defendant in the courtroom, Roma is lousy bet. A stripper (not a prostitute, but try to convince a jury of that when her history comes out.) whose brand is so tainted that the best she can hope for is to use a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. The result? two consecutive life terms plus some extra. Some bargain.
Once behind bars, basically forever, she falls into all the devious manipulations open to her. She’s pretty smart, plenty streetwise, and managed to graduate high school. Thus, she develops a relationship with a tutor who is basically there to help people get GED’s and is happy to find someone who can actually read even though she had no use for the GED (or any other certificate, really)
Roma uses this relationship to good effect. I might not have found convincing the extent she is able to lead this guy around by the nose had I not recalled a recent incident in an upstate New York prison in which two convicts (murderers, no less) manipulated an employee in the prison laundry into aiding and abetting their escape. It was, I believe, their abetter’s inability or unwillingness to procure a getaway vehicle that spelled doom to that attempt; but they were loose for a week or two.
For Roma, their conversations are at first, a relief from the normal prison routine. More important, she is later desperate to get news of the son she left behind. All she is able to find out is that the state has taken away all her parental rights. Officially, she will never get news of, let alone access to, her child. However, she hopes the tutor will somehow at least find out some details about the boy’s situation. The tutor teases her and himself into thinking that might be possible.
This thread continues as part of the suspense-narrative structure throughout the book, and Kushner makes excellent dramatic use of it to build some suspense in a situation in which the possibilities for change are enormously limited. Without doing a total spoiler, I will say that Roma’s intelligence and ingenuity help her create circumstances that make for a suspenseful and thrilling end.
The Mars Room is, as it turns out, though not the book of the year, a better read by far than I expected.