In her first two novels, Rachel Kushner does what a good writer is supposed to do: she transports readers into a richly created world and into the complex minds of her characters—so thoroughly that we mesh with both the world and its inhabitants.
Ditto THE MARS ROOM, Kushner’s third novel, which deserves a place along side her others. The perfectly conceived world we enter in this book is a women’s prison and the minds are those of of its prisoners. That world, thankfully alien to most of us, becomes frighteningly real in the author’s hands.
As with Kushner’s other novels, this one is also a page turner—not because it is a suspense thriller (it isn’t), but because we care about the fate of Romy Hall, the young, single mother at the heart of the story. Romy is incarcerated for two consecutive life sentences. She’s a murderer—she killed a man, a crime to which she openly admits—yet that’s hardly the full story.
But the legal system has no interest in the full story: neither prosecutors, nor judge, nor, worst of all, her own lawyer, a bumbling, harried public defender, who just wants to clear Romy from his case load. He should care … but he doesn’t. Nor does anyone care enough to tell a desperate Romy the whereabouts of her young son, who has simply disappeared into some unknown branch of social services.
And this is the point at which we become enraged. Kushner paints a portrait of a bureaucratic, inhumane system run amok, more intent on punishment than on mercy—and having little to do with justice.
The novel takes us back to Romy’s excuse for a childhood—an absent father; a careless, feckless mother; and a group of friends who hung out in San Francisco’s parks scoring sex and drugs. Eventually, Romy ends up as a lap dancer at the Mars Room, a San Francisco strip club, and then becomes pregnant.
It’s tempting to blame Romy for her own poor choices—as the prison guards invariably tell any prisoner who slides into despair. Yet for Romy, there was never love, no parental guidance, no mentor, no one to relieve the poverty of imagination and point her in a different direction.
Given the wild success of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, devourers of popular culture are no strangers to female prisons as fictional settings. But Kushner’s work probes deeper. It is both more harrowing and more intimate—a vividly constructed view of the U.S. penal system in all its ugliness. With a full cast of wonderfully drawn characters and mesmerizing prose, The Mars Room deserves all the acclaim it has won.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.