The Mars Room
By Rachel Kushner. (Scribner, 338 pages, $27.)
Rachel Kushner's writing has been called "propulsive," and this was definitely on show in her 2013 National Book Award finalist, "The Flamethrowers," a novel about a motorcycle racer navigating the conceptual art scene in 1970s New York. It's also true of her latest novel, "The Mars Room," even though its characters are stuck in one place. It's set in a women's prison in California, where the main character, a smart, stripper single mom named Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker. As she remembers her life on the outside, she also learns from her fellow inmates how to live on the inside.
It was an unfortunate distraction, but as I read "The Mars Room," I couldn't help but picture some of the characters in Netflix's women-in-prison hit "Orange Is The New Black," and hear some of the actors' distinctive voices filling in for the people that make up Romy's new world. Like the TV show's Piper, Romy is a fish out of water — reading Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son," thinking about her film professor ex-boyfriend — but, unlike the TV show's main character and the woman who wrote the memoir inspiring it, Romy doesn't come from WASPY, moneyed privilege. Her world is the streets and alleys of San Francisco pre-gentrification, and some of the best passages of "The Mars Room" are set there, in the Sunset neighborhood where Kushner actually grew up, "fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach."
"The Mars Room" is about our justice system and its failings. But it's also about female toughness and endurance in its most extreme forms — a character named Button tells Romy about riding shackled in a van cage, 48 hours after giving birth, her stitches opening up. After a guard dispassionately notifies Romy that her mom died in an accident, she can't stop crying and ends up spending three months alone in a bare cell on suicide watch, grieving what to her is an even greater loss — her son, now without a guardian, is gone into "the system" and there's no way for them to ever reconnect. This heartbreaking, frustrating and beautiful book gave me a pit in my stomach that didn't go away once I finished reading.
By Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. (Grand Central Publishing, 336 pages, $26.)
When it comes to family, trauma pays it forward, and escaping family trauma's grasp takes mighty wisdom, effort and luck. In Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's "Shadow Child," trauma is the spiked pearl in the pretty shell of the lives of identical twins Hanako and Keiko, born to Miya, a troubled but unfailingly gentle woman who lives in an isolated town in Hawaii.
The twins grow up almost feral, so close that it is not always clear, even to themselves, who is who. "If it is curious to imagine being two people at once, especially when both of them are in the same place, it was more possible than it seemed," Hanako says. "The hardest part was how oddly exhausting it was to remember who I was."
When they reach their teens in the 1960s, Hanako has become studious and reclusive, while Keiko is considered the wild one. A terrible event wounds and separates them, and years later, another violent interlude takes place when Keiko sets out to find her long-estranged sister in New York City. As their stories unfold, so too does the dark mystery of their mother's life during World War II, which took her from California to Japan to Hawaii. Despite its occasional tendency to get bogged down in overly long, confusing flashbacks, "Shadow Child" is a well written and arresting psychological thriller.