The Mars Room

9 CDs. 9:30 hrs. S. & S. Audio. Apr. 2018. ISBN 9781508244370. $34.99. digital download. F
Kushner (National Book Award finalist for both The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba) takes listeners on a trip to the seedy side of San Francisco during the early 2000s. In this extremely depressing yet beautifully written tale full of sleazy nightclubs, drug addicts, and graphic violence, we follow Romy Hall on her way from exotic dancer to convicted murderer. Romy is a victim of a broken justice system and is serving life without the possibility of parole for murdering her stalker. With Romy, we get a vivid view of the brutality of prison as well as the stories of other characters within it, such as Gordon Hauser, who teaches at the prison, and Doc, a dirty cop who is convicted of a murder he committed for one of Romy's fellow inmates. Kushner, who also narrates, does such a remarkable job describing this dreary landscape that listeners can taste the despair and hopelessness. As narrator, her understated, matter-of-fact tone helps bring out the bleakness of both Romy's situation and the world surrounding her. This tone, however, does become problematic when the narrative switches to other characters since there is little to no distinction among story lines. Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon provides the intro and outro song—it is a shame that we get barely three minutes of her music.
VERDICT Kushner delivers a powerful, character-driven story, highlighting the harsh realities of incarceration. Recommend to those who thought Orange Is the New Black was too sweet and heartwarming. ["Without a shred of sentimentality, Kushner makes us see these characters as humans who are survivors, getting through life the only way they are able to given their circumstances": LJ 4/1/18 review of the Scribner hc.]
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