BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, May 2018
Much of the action of Rachel Kushner’s brilliant new novel is set in California prisons. She has done her research, and the novel is filled with distressing factual details like death-row inmates sewing sandbags and prison staff using a powerful, probably toxic disinfectant called Cell Block 64. And of course there are the stultifying, dehumanizing prison routines.
But the moral scope of The Mars Room is really too large for it to be considered a prison novel. Through its vividly rendered characters, it asks the reader to ponder bigger questions—Dostoyevskian questions—about the system of justice, the possibility of redemption and even the industrialization of the natural landscape.
The novel’s central character is Romy Hall. We meet her as she is being transported from a Los Angeles jail to Stanville, a prison in California’s agricultural heartland where she is to serve two life sentences. She is 29, born to a cruel mother in a San Francisco neighborhood that bears little resemblance to the high-tech mecca of today. She is the mother of a young son she worries about obsessively. Until she fled a stalker by moving with her son to Los Angeles, she hustled as a lap dancer at a place called the Mars Room in downtown San Francisco. We don’t learn the details until late in the novel, but we know that because of her ineffectual lawyer, she ends up in prison for killing her stalker.
Kushner (Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers) is both tough and darkly funny in writing about her characters’ situations, and she writes not so much for us to empathize with them, but rather to understand them. The Mars Room is a captivating and beautiful novel.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Kushner for The Mars Room.