Man Booker Prize

Going undercover in a US jail

Rachel Kushner (left) gives a human face to convicted felons in a women's jail in her novel, The Mars Room (above).
Rachel Kushner (above) gives a human face to convicted felons in a women's jail in her novel, The Mars Room.PHOTO: CHLOE AFTEL

Who: Los Angeles-based American novelist Rachel Kushner, 50, makes her shortlist debut with her third novel. Her first two books were nominated for the United States' National Book Award, including the critically acclaimed The Flamethrowers (2013), about the 1975 Manhattan art scene.

THE MARS ROOM

Jonathan Cape/Paperback/340 pages /$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/

4/5

In The Mars Room, Kushner humanises the convicted felons in a women's jail in California in an important social narrative.

There is plenty of racism, injustice and sordid details - including rectally smuggled contraband and a selfinflicted castration. These vivid details may seem out of this world, but the amount of research the author has done would give you pause - she went undercover at a California prison for her field research, where a cop-turned-murderer was among those she spoke to.

The story is told largely through the eyes of 29-year-old Romy Leslie Hall, who is serving two life sentences for the brutal murder of handicapped stalker Kurt Kennedy.

She first meets him at San Francisco strip club The Mars Room, which she calls the "very seediest and most circus-like place there is".

He follows her to Los Angeles when she tries to start a new life and she bludgeons him to death in the name of self-defence to protect her five-year-old son, Jackson.

She is defended in court by an assigned public lawyer whom she believes did not bother putting up too much of a fight.

It soon emerges that Hall has had a hard life - raped at 11 and having to work to fund her mother's drug habit.

Rachel Kushner (left) gives a human face to convicted felons in a women's jail in her novel, The Mars Room (above).
Rachel Kushner gives a human face to convicted felons in a women's jail in her novel, The Mars Room (above). PHOTO: JONATHAN CAPE

We meet her on a bus on her way to a high-security correctional facility where there are supporting characters who, like in Netflix's women's prison drama Orange Is The New Black (2013 to present), enliven the plot. There is a model who pays a hitman to kill her lover - and a crooked cop to kill said hitman after she suspects him of being a tattletale.

There is a teenage mum convicted of killing a Chinese man in a robbery gone wrong, in a case with plenty of racial undertones.

Hall's mother, who has custody of Jackson, later dies in a car accident, setting off an emotive chain of events where she manipulates and fights the brutality of the prison system to reconnect with her child.

There is no sympathy from the prison guards, who blithely tell her that her situation is 100 per cent due to her own choices and actions.

The Mars Room takes a critical, empathetic deep dive into the US criminal justice system, though the writing is weighed down in parts by detail from a writer knowing her subject too well.

If you like this, read: Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman (Little, Brown Book Group, 2010, $23.50, Books Kinokuniya). Kerman writes about her convictions and the time she spent in prison in this memoir that was adapted into a Netflix comedy-drama of the same name.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2018, with the headline 'Going undercover in a US jail'. Print Edition | Subscribe