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The Mars Room

Review

The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s prior books, particularly her National Book Award finalist THE FLAMETHROWERS, are almost relentlessly propulsive, full of scenes of movement and velocity. By contrast, her new novel, THE MARS ROOM, is at times almost stifling in its confinement. That is, of course, by design, since it is mostly set in a women’s prison, so its prose and pacing in many ways echo its setting and theme.

At the center of the book is Romy Hall, a former stripper who has been given two consecutive life sentences for murdering a man (who, we later learn, had been stalking her to the point that she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in large part to escape him). Romy’s case is emblematic of the flaws in the American justice system; her case is lost due to an incompetent, overworked public defender.

"Kushner addresses contemporary, vitally important issues of justice and prison reform, but also tackles timeless, universal themes through the lens of Romy’s story."

As the novel opens, Romy is being transported with several other inmates to the facility where, one assumes, she will spend the rest of her days. This van ride serves as a narrative device to introduce readers to numerous secondary characters, but it also sets the scene --- one woman quietly keels over and dies en route, and another one, merely a teenager, gives birth during the intake screening upon arrival. Both events are approached by the prison bureaucracy with either indifference or annoyance --- empathy is in short supply here, it seems.

Much of THE MARS ROOM illustrates Romy navigating the new social mores of prison society, which include complicated power dynamics among the women as well as various strategies for exploiting sympathetic men, from pen pals to prison guards to GED tutors. Some of the horrific and dehumanizing details included here will be familiar to viewers of “Orange is the New Black,” but that does not diminish their impact. These details of prison life alternate with episodes from other characters’ points of view, as well as with Romy’s flashbacks to her old life. Romy casts her mind back to her childhood and her more recent past doing lap dances at the Mars Room. But more than anything, her mind turns, again and again, to the whereabouts and well-being of her young son, as the months pass and her connection to him grows increasingly tenuous.

In THE MARS ROOM, Kushner addresses contemporary, vitally important issues of justice and prison reform, but also tackles timeless, universal themes through the lens of Romy’s story. What happens to humans when they are sequestered --- by force or by choice? What separates human civilization from chaos? What circumstances tip people into despair --- and how do they behave when they land there? Perhaps fittingly, given its pacing and tone, THE MARS ROOM is a deeply empathic, profoundly heartbreaking book that encourages readers to stop and ponder these questions and many more.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 4, 2018

The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1476756554
  • ISBN-13: 9781476756554