The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize 2018 long list) “You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.”

“I used to feel sorry for you bitches,” Jones said. “But if you want to be a parent, you don’t end up in prison. Plain and simple. Plain and simple.”

Life used to be just that straightforward to me. “You live the life you choose,” I thought.

To some extent, I still think that. I want to believe that we control our lives: work hard, have a home; take care of your body, don’t get sick. But the older I get, the more I realize that point of view is very simplistic.

Rachel Kushner shows us, in The Mars Room, how hard it is to be brought up with a dysfunctional mother in the poorest parts of San Francisco. How a childhood of zero chances can more often than not turn into an adult life with the same.

Her heroine, Romy Hall, has been a stripper in a club called the Mars Room. She leaves her son, Jackson, with her mother and tries to strike a balance between entertaining the men enough that they will pay her, but not so much that they stalk her. As one, in particular, does. Relentlessly following her even to another state when she tries to relocate to get away from him.

The way that she describes her childhood is sorrowful, heartbreaking stuff; it’s a life of sneaking into movie theaters, getting drunk on weeknights, fighting for a place in the world because no one’s going to make one for you.

Life in prison is not any better.

Romy is there with a minimum of two life sentences, along with other achingly drawn characters such as Conan, a transvestite, and Sammy Fernandez, who has a network of friends from being incarcerated several times before. We can see what a hopeless place of despair the women’s prison, Stanville, is. Even though these few form a family of sorts, there is no home for them. No comforts, no promise for the future, no hope.

The only thing that gives Romy the least bit of comfort is that her son has a chance for a good life. It is not too late for him, at least.