cover image The Mars Room

The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner. Scribner, $27 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4767-5655-4

Two-time National Book Award finalist Kushner (The Flamethrowers) delivers a heartbreaking and unforgettable novel set in a California women’s prison. Single mother Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after murdering a stalker. From prison, she narrates her drug-addled, hard-bitten past in San Francisco, where she worked as a stripper at the legendary Mars Room, as well as her present, where she serves her sentence alongside inmates such as Conan (so masculine as to have been mistakenly sent to a men’s prison), the heavy metal-loving white supremacist known as the Norse, and loquacious baby-killer Laura Lipp. Readers slowly learn the circumstances of Romy’s conviction, and eventually glean a composite portrait of the justice system, including the story of Gordon Hauser, a well-meaning but naive English teacher assigned to Stanville, and a dirty LAPD cop, "Doc," who serves out a parallel sentence in the Sensitive Needs block of New Folsom Prison. But the focus is on the routine at Stanville, where Romy pines for her son, reads the books recommended to her by Gordon, recalls her past life in vivid and excruciating detail, and plans a daring escape. Kushner excels at capturing the minutiae of life behind bars and manages to critique the justice system, as well. Romy is a remarkable protagonist; her guilt is never in question, but her choices are understandable. Kushner’s novel is notable for its holistic depiction of who gets wrapped up in incarceration—families, lawyers, police, and prisoners; it deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love, and humanity with which it clearly was written. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (May) This review has been corrected; an earlier version stated a character was on death row.