Should I Read It? The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner is back with her fourth book, 'The Mars Room.' It's gritty, funny and also painful. But should you read it? Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne gives us the lowdown.
The Mars Room is Rachel Kushner's third novel. (Lucy Raven/Simon and Schuster)
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With two National Book Award nominations under her belt, some critics are already suggesting that Rachel Kushner might see a third with her new novel, The Mars Room.

Becky Toyne is the Day 6 books columnist.

The book follows the story of Romy, a woman sentenced to life in a California prison after being convicted of murder.

Kushner spent six years extensively researching prison life as she prepared and wrote the novel.

The book is receiving rave reviews for it's authenticity.

Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne calls The Mars Room "brilliant."

About the story

There's no question about whether or not the book's protagonist, Romy, is guilty.

"When the book opens she's on her way to prison and she has been sentenced to serve two life sentences, plus six years without parole for a murder that she did commit," Becky Toyne tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The murder was self-defence, Romy argues, saying that she was protecting herself from a former partner who was stalking her. The two met at The Mars Room, a strip club where Romy once performed.

The book is primarily set in a women's prison, after Romy's conviction, slowly revealing her fully story and history.

"It is so vibrant and three dimensional and almost polyphonic because the dialogue is so good you can have the sounds and the smells and everything of the story," Toyne says.

Research

Before writing The Mars Room, Kushner studied the California prison system, even going undercover for 10 days.

"Sometimes with books like this you can feel that the author [has] done so much research, and then it's difficult to not just kind of splash it all on the page," says Toyne.

But Kushner is judicious with how much background she uses.

What's particularly thoughtful, says Toyne, is Kushner's use of details.

For example, Kushner describes the way some inmates use peanut butter to stick pills to the room of their mouth, "so when they open their mouth it looks like the pill is gone and they hoard their meds so they can have a big party on Saturday night," she says.

So, should I read it?

For Toyne, the book is a smart blend of funny and challenging.

"There were moments where I laughed out loud and then there are times where it was so painfully sad to read that I had to put the book down for a second," she says.

Romy's character is raw and honest without being sentimental and her story gives pause.

"It makes you, as a reader, ask very tough questions about how in the society that you live in are complicit in this kind of world order as well," she says.

Still, the book isn't without its flaws. In one part, Kushner incorporates letters from Ted Kaczynski — better known as the Unabomber.

For Toyne, the narrative was unneeded, but that's "just minor quibbles," Toyne argues.

Unequivocally, Becky Toyne thinks you should read The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner.


Day 6 has two copies of Rachel Kushner's new novel to give away. To enter our random draw, send an e-mail to daysix@cbc.ca with The Mars Room in the subject line.

Be sure to include your mailing address and the answer to this skill testing question: Where does the The Mars Room get its title?

We'll pick two winners at random before next week's show.

To listen to Becky Toyne's full review, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.