More often than I’d like to admit I decide not to read a novel based on the title or because I think I’m not interested in the subject matter. Both Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room were books I avoided, despite positive reviews, for those reasons.
With Gun Love I stayed away for reasons that seem obvious. With all the horrific headlines about gun violence, the last thing I wanted to do was read a book ostensibly about that subject. Nevertheless, I picked it upon on a meander through Green Apple and read the first lines—“My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her any time”—and felt compelled to read on. Great opener or what?
Yes, there are lots of guns in this story, set mostly in a trailer park in central Florida where teenage Pearl lives with her mother in their ’94 Mercury. But it’s also a poignant coming of age story and the voice of its resilient young narrator is authentic and moving. Her mother, a former rich girl who ran away from her family as a pregnant teenager, is a fascinating, needy character. The fact that we don’t hate her, despite her neglectful parenting, is something of a miracle.
The Florida here has nothing to do with glitzy beach communities or the Magic Kingdom. It’s a dead-end place with people barely scraping by.
Somehow, in the middle of all this non-beauty, Clement delivers a novel filled with gorgeous prose that resonates with rich imagery. Clement is the author of the non-fiction Widow Basquiat and the novel Prayers for the Stolen, set amidst the drugs wars in Mexico, where Clement was born and now lives. I plan to read both.
Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Mars Room is getting raves all over the place. The book takes readers inside the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley, focusing on a young mother and ex-stripper named Romy Hall who is doing life for murdering her stalker.
Romy is a San Francisco native from the Sunset—Kushner lived here as a teenager—and through her eyes we get a glimpse of her distinctly unglamorous city:
I knew that for everyone else in the world the Golden Gate Bridge was considered something special, but to me and my friends it was nothing. We just wanted to get wasted. The city to us was clammy fingers of fog working their way into our clothes, always those clammy fingers, and big bluffs of wet moist hurling themselves down Judah Street while I waited by sandy streetcar tracks for the N, which ran once an hour late-night, waited and waited with mud casked on the hem of my jeans, mud from the puddles in the parking lot of Ocean Beach.
Yup, that’s the Sunset.
Kushner is passionately involved in work as an advocate for incarcerated women and it shows in this novel. The portraits she draws are complex and far from the cookie cutter types often found in novels about women in prison. No, Romy isn’t a stripper with heart of gold nor is she particularly admirable. But we root for her anyway.
This book may make you angry and may even break your heart a little bit. But hey, isn’t that why we read?
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