All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.
In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.
The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.
There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.
I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.
There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.
I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.
Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.