This time an American. I am unconvinced about the inclusion of American writers in the Man Booker Prize, I think it was a bad idea but accept that it is irreversible. You cannot allow a group in for a few years, then exclude them again when they win all the prizes. Which is what has happened.
That said, Rachel Kushner has written a crackingly good novel, one that anyone might want to read. The Mars Room is set in an American woman’s correctional facility with a main character, Romy Hall, who is in for two life sentences. We meet other inmates, some on death row whose lives intersect with hers simply because they are in the same serious, life-denying circumstances.
The same routine, the same people, the same food, the same problems. It is hard to imagine what is meant by “correctional” in these places. Those on death row sew sandbags – to be filled by male prisoners in other “correctional facilities”; those less threatening, but serious criminals – murderers, grievous bodily harmers and the like – can get on to the workshop programme where they are trained in carpentry – to make the furniture for the courtrooms of the United States judiciary: the witness box, the bench, the judges’ chairs – some irony there?
Then there is the educational programme, once a week, for basic numeracy and literacy. Romy joins the class of G Hauser, who starts with some easy to answer questions that amount to adding three plus eight, or two plus five. Romy is having none of it; finally he gets the point and begins to send her interesting books via Amazon – after a first mis-step sending her To Kill a Mocking Bird, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing and one other, all of which she read when she read thirteen!
Throughout the book we learn about the background to Romy’s situation, what she did before – she was a lap-dancer in the eponymous club – The Mars Room – a sleazy, San Franciscan low-life club. And what she did to end up in this prison. We learn about her son Jackson, living with his grandmother and what happens when that goes wrong.
This is not alone about women, for we also meet a rough, crooked cop who has been sold up the water by one of the death row women, and is now in his own hell: a men’s prison. Stuck there hoping that no one will discover his career option – but Blanche LaFrance has other ideas and our friend G Hauser is persuaded to post a letter for her, with near fatal results.
As an eye-opener it is not without its surprises, but the brutality and the sheer unpleasantness is not easy; especially for the trans-gender inmates. One in particular that moves from the male prison where Doc the cop is, to the female prison – where ‘they’ are not made welcome.
My shadow book is also by an American, a writer that you will be familiar with because I have read everything she has ever written. Anne Tyler‘s new title is Clock Dance.
It starts with a young woman, Willa Drake, selling candies to make money for her school orchestra trip; it jumps quickly to her college years and to her first marriage. She has two sons Sam and Ian, they appear as late teenagers and then we jump further on to her second marriage.
At this point, the turning point of the whole novel, she is summoned suddenly to Baltimore, and we are straightaway back in familiar Tyler territory. We feel the heat, the dust and the small bedraggled houses; the long streets with close knit communities and we meet over time all the neighbours, their quirky otherness.
This quixotic decision is regarded by her husband as unnecessary and ill-considered, but he goes with her anyway. Peter is dismissive of her good intentions, and fairly contemptuous of the people that she ends up with: Denise, who has been shot in the leg, her daughter Cheryl, who Willa has agreed to look after, and pretty much the whole caboodle. Eventually, when Denise is finally released from hospital, Peter goes home.
The clock dance of the title is described thus:
Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s the clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end.
Willa stays on, and on…