The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Arriving thirsty, exhausted and traumatised, the lack of compassion in the women’s welcome sets the emotional tone of the years ahead, as they’re searched, disinfected and made to sit through a recital of the institution’s rules. The absurdity becomes apparent when the teenager goes into labour: she can’t be deemed pregnant until assessed by the medics and she can’t see the medics until the admissions paperwork is complete. When Romy and a few others, in defiance of the guards, go to assist her, they’re forced to begin their sentences in “administrative segregation” denied even the basic privileges, apart from proximity to the “celebrities” on death row.
This might look like a North Korean penal institution, but it’s actually California under the Bush presidency, a warehouse for no-hopers – staff as well as inmates – as depressing as the one imagined by Peyton Marshall in her futuristic dystopia, Goodhouse. One of the few white prisoners, Romy’s had it tough right from the start, finding the only way to get by in an uncaring society is to drink, do drugs, defy the rules and develop a hard shell. Prison changes none of this: if staff show the women any kindness, they’ll take advantage, and why not?
Fortunately, as a narrator, Romy has redeeming features: she’s bright; has a sense of humour; and cares deeply about the welfare of her seven-year-old son. But when news arrives that severs the link between them, she’s determined to fight. But what chance does she have when even her trial was a farce? Meeting her lawyer when the court was already in session, she wasn’t allowed to speak in her own defence. Even when her victim had stalked her relentlessly, a lap-dancer’s testimony wouldn’t hold much weight.
With a cast of colourful characters adding additional perspectives, Rachel Kushner’s third novel is both the story of survival on the margins of contemporary America and a blistering indictment of the social systems that create and exacerbate disadvantage, and brutalise us all. I’d like to think her depiction of the prison is an exaggeration, but it’s probably even worse under the current regime. While I appreciated the read, I’ve been unable to pin down why I’m not raving about this novel as much as the subject matter deserves. Thanks to Jonathan Cape for my review copy.
The Unbeliever by Oggy Boytchev
Alexander is a disillusioned idealist who believes that, in betraying his country, he might save the world. For only if neither side has a strong advantage in the arms race, can peace be assured. But Alexander also has an inflated sense of his own ability and importance. Could it be that he’s been used in a power play even he fails to understand?
Moving between Alexander’s pre-trial interviews and the testimony of his wife almost three decades on, Oggy Boytchev’s first novel gradually builds a picture of the communist social system and the psychology of a spy. Having visited the country twice – the first time by accident as is my wont – I was also interested to learn about Bulgarian history and to recognise some Soviet names from Life and Fate. But as with that classic novel – although much shorter – I found myself distanced from the emotion by the profusion of historical figures wandering through the narrative and a somewhat ‘telly’ tone.
Based on the story of a real-life Bulgarian spy, The Unbeliever brings a new perspective to Cold War history. Thanks to Quartet books for my review copy, my first from this independent publisher.