The winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced last month. While ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers and ‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan appeared to be the favourites to win among bloggers I follow, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns triumphed in the end. I’m undecided about whether or not to read it. There has been a lot of focus on the experimental prose style and the question of its “readability” with its unnamed characters and paragraphs without breaks. However, when chair of the judges Kwame Anthony Appiah said “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard”, I wasn’t sure he really succeeded in selling it to a wider audience. On the other hand, it should be noted that the actual sales figures since Burns’ win tell a different story and it will be interesting to see how it is critically received in the long term. Do let me know what you think of ‘Milkman’ if you have read it.
Anyway, I digress. The only book I have read so far from this year’s shortlist is ‘The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner which is set in a women’s correctional facility in California. In 2003, 28-year-old Romy Hall has received two consecutive life sentences for killing a man who stalked her for months at the San Francisco strip club where she used to work. Sometimes it feels like the majority of dramas and documentaries I watch on Netflix offer vivid depictions of how ridiculous the justice system is in the United States, but it’s not an issue that is dealt with directly in the same proportion of the novels I read. With no prospect of parole, the narrative possibilities of Romy’s story in the present day are very limited, so the story oscillates between her life before prison particularly her troubled adolescence, the events which led to her conviction and her current day-to-day existence as an inmate observing the conditions of the prison and the behaviour of those around her.
The chapters told from Romy’s perspective are very detached in tone which is entirely understandable given her situation. Her efforts to keep in contact with her seven-year-old son Jackson will elicit empathy but there are also greyer areas to her character where the manipulation of others is involved and Kushner deftly avoids providing simplistic explanations for Romy’s actions. The story also offers alternative perspectives from prison teacher Gordon Hauser and various inmates, reminiscent of the diverse ensemble cast ‘Orange is the New Black’. However, long-form television drama is probably a more effective format than a novel to tell such sprawling stories in the depth they require and the result is that ‘The Mars Room’ has a messy structure which lacks focus.
‘The Mars Room’ offers a very interesting character study and shines a light on the bleak realities of incarceration in the US justice system although I’m not surprised it didn’t win the overall prize. Of the other shortlisted books, I’m considering reading ‘Everything Under’ by Daisy Johnson or ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers at some point probably in the new year. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, I also recommend the BBC Four documentary ‘Barneys, Books and Bust-Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize’ which is available until 14th November. Which novel(s) did you enjoy the most from this year’s shortlist or longlist?