If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for!
Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever.
Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hidden from his friends. Connell is popular and able to get dates with pretty much anyone he wants – even the most popular girl in school.
Connell and Marianne have a clandestine relationship that Connell tries to deny is actually a relationship, and Marianne seems to be grateful for any company she can get, regardless of the terms.
Each chapter moves the clock forward by a few weeks or a few months and the pair disappear off to Dublin to go to university. Dublin’s a different place altogether and Marianne’s wealth and intelligence bring ready acceptance into the beautiful people. Connell, meanwhile, is the poor bogtrotter who struggles to find his niche.
Then, like a Russian novel, these two friends drift in and out of one another’s lives and in and out of one another’s beds. In between their brief periods of togetherness, we tick off heaps of social issues that are of great importance to undergraduates: academic pressure; prizes and scholarships; abusive older boyfriends; parties; finding the next drink…
I suppose the theme of the novel is about social class and power imbalances. How in youth, fitting in is about reaching downwards whereas in adulthood it is about aspirations and reaching upwards. It’s like Bill Gates used to say: be nice to nerds because one day you’ll work for them. And associated with class, you have the urban/rural divide with the Dublin Jackeens ruling the roost, only admitting those from the big houses into their midst. But at the same time, there is a hollowness to this belonging. The sacrifices you have to make to your integrity as you adapt to fit in will ultimately lead to hollow feelings.
This is a novel that could happily have been written twenty, thirty years ago. Things don’t change. But people do – and a novel that might have seemed wonderful and insightful in my own youth now looks trivial. Student relationships were only ever interesting if you were in them. You always remember your first love, but then life happens. And life is more interesting.
The literary fiction caravan comes to Neasden. Previously known only for the ashen-faced Ron Knee, Sid and Doris Bonkers and Private Eye (see p. 94); we find ourselves in a council estate following multiple points of view within a diverse community.
At first it looks as though it is going to be all about youth with Yusuf, Ardan and Selvon - but we also find other voices: Nelson, a Windrush generation man and Caroline, a refugee from the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The difficulty I had was in separating the different characters.
The youths, in particular, were interchangeable. One was a rapper - although I tended to forget this between references to rapping; one was apparently sporty; a couple of them were the sons of the former imam. But I couldn't tell you which was which. And they didn't seem to do much more than play football and eat at the chicken shop. One of them had an interest in a girl, I think. Nelson (who spoke in patois) and Caroline (who spoke in pretty convincing Belfast vernacular) were easier to pick, but their stories seemed somehow removed in both time and place.
There seemed to be a lot of action off camera. There had been the murder of a British soldier; there were areas cordoned off by police tape, there were crowds in the distance. But it was never quite clear what was going on or whether time was linear. Caroline's story, most of which took place in and around Belfast, was quite opaque and I had to keep flicking back and forth to see whether I had missed something - invariably I hadn't.
There were some elements of the plot, such as it was, that really didn't ring true. I didn't believe the Belfast story and couldn't see what Caroline had done that would have led to her forced exile; I didn't believe in the way Claude - a radical West Indian - would have treated Nelson; and I didn't believe that someone could be radicalised just after a single conversation with a scary new imam. I certainly didn't believe in the fire. Or the epilogue, which I thought was twee to the point of undermining the supposed force of the rest of the novel.
I guess the point the novel was trying to make was that every generation had its rebels and radicals; that they age and their crusades fade away; and therefore the current Islamophobia is probably a passing phenomenon that will be supplanted by something else in due course. And that's a viewpoint to which I would subscribe. I just didn't think this rather jumbled novel quite succeeded in providing new insight on the subject.
Occasionally there is an American novel that features neither their president nor a prison. This is not one of those novels.
Romy Hall is a stripper sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murdering one of her clients. Most of the novel offers her perspective on life in the Californian prison system. This is done with competence, although there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. There are cinder blocks, chains and bunk beds. The women do mechanical jobs, they hang around the yard, they eat slop and get on each others' nerves. They communicate with neighbours by shouting down toilets or through inconveniently set grilles in locked doors. There's the obligatory film crew, death row, butches, fems, visits, phone restrictions...
Then, occasionally, Romy shows us her past life as a stripper and a mother to Jackson. It isn't clear whether she is supposed to be a sympathetic character but she comes across as spoilt, resentful and manipulative. And there are sections that focus on Gordon Hauser, a prison educator who is naive beyond words - the only question is which woman will be his downfall and how many people will get hurt alone the way. Oh, and there are some sadistic diary excerpts [supposedly] written by Ted Kaczynski. This shifting in perspective is occasional enough to be disconcerting - it is still Romy's book.
The characters are not complex. Conan is a butch - probably intersex - always referred to by masculine pronouns. Norse is a white aryan bigot. Buttons is the same, but hispanic. Laura Lipp is a delusional over-sharer. Doc is a male former cop who is in the wrong novel. But mercifully, Romy is not some sweet innocent doing time to protect some greater good. So in this sense, the lack of complexity is probably fairly authentic.
But also authentic is the lack of excitement. Prison is apparently quite boring, which does make one wonder why so many books and films choose prisons for their setting. It is a routine and formulaic life which makes for some less than riveting narrative. It's not bad; any given section seems well written and engaging, but it just doesn't add up to anything that really hangs together. It's not clear what point Rachel Kushner was trying to make.
The Mars Room is a bit generic. As prison novels go, it is quite competent. It's not doing anyone any harm. But neither will it change your life.