Focus on The Mars Room - Man Booker Prize 2018

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The Man Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for five decades. Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK. It is a prize that transforms the winner’s career.

The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.

The Mars Room

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother. Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike, allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks and stories shared through sewage pipes. Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line — until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny. The Mars Room presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.

Thoughts on the book

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‘Bigger’ Bookclub is one of the reading groups shadowing the Man Booker Prize this year and have been reading The Mars Room:

“It was a mizzly Thursday evening, and the ladies of ‘Bigger’ Bookclub met by the fireside in our favourite pub, to discuss the shortlisted Man Booker Prize novel, The Mars Room by American author Rachel Kushner.

It was an intense and lively debate with a mix of thoughts and impressions. On the whole the group liked the book and found merit in the subject matter of American prisons, their justice system, and the lives of those embroiled within it; some might say ‘expose’!

“This is an unsentimental portrayal of life at the margins of contemporary American society and what it takes to survive its brutal prison regime, a system based on incarceration not rehabilitation”

There was agreement that the book was a ‘difficult’ read “ it was tough, depressing and hard to read” however, we also agreed that it was a story that captured you (no pun intended) and you wanted to turn over the pages to the end

“It was a beautiful book that grabbed me from page one”

We found the story at times harrowing, but thought-provoking, intelligent and well written “Her life (the main protagonist Romy Hall) is harsh and (she) is hard edged but also vulnerable at the same time”

There was a lot of dark humour in the novel which gave a much needed lift.

“It was also at times, funny, knowledgeable and insightful, which is why I continued to turn the page instead of turning away”

The genre of the book is not one that a lot of the members would have personally chosen but reading something which is outside the comfort zone, broadens the experience and opens the eyes to a different culture and incomprehensible way of life and being in the world, can only be beneficial.

So, over our much needed drinks, the discussion of the book and its subject, naturally turned to life in prisons; the justice system here (UK) and in the US; the reasons for crime, and the often abused, mistreated and deprived women who end up there.

“It’s clear Rachel Kushner has done her homework and she’s done it well, not shying away from the fact that the majority of women in the penal system are there because somewhere along their journey they’ve been mistreated”

Would we recommend this book and do we think it’s a winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2018?

“I have recommended to friends and family to read it as I feel the subject matter is important”; “Difficult, devastating and at points humorous, I couldn’t put it down”; “Heart-breaking in parts, and it certainly grows on you the more you get into the book – well worth a read”- l think we can say yes there!

Whether this would be the one that the Man Booker judges choose this year is debatable but we think in many ways it is a winner and a deserving one.

As we finished up our fortifying drinks and prepared for the journey home we agreed that the ladies of ‘Bigger’ Bookclub had very much enjoyed being part of the shadowing process for Man Booker and would like to thank The Reading Agency for giving us the opportunity."

Get involved

Have you read The Mars Room? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.

What to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for The Mars Room, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.

Want ideas on what to read next? We’ve created a supporting booklist with suggestions of other books that you might like to try if you enjoyed The Mars Room, including books with similar locations, writing styles or genres.

Find out about the other reading groups
2018 shadowing the Man Booker Prize and take a look at their reviews of the shortlist.

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