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It's 2003, and 29-year-old Romy Leslie Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years in a California correctional facility for killing her stalker. After a hardscrabble coming-of-age in 1980s San Francisco, Romy now faces a new level of suffering in a place where inmates are hog-tied and tased and, if pregnant, might be forced to give birth on the cement floor of a cell. The Mars Room, the potent third novel from two-time National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner, is an incendiary examination of flawed justice and the stacked deck of a system that entraps women who were born into poverty.
Kushner spent years visiting California prisons, even posing as a criminology student, to gain a deeper understanding. Her real-life preoccupation has produced a fictional story with multiple narrative threads, voices, and outlooks. We're introduced to Romy's young son, Jackson, from whom she's estranged, and to the Mars Room, the strip club where she worked to make ends meet. We also encounter Gordon, the naïve GED teacher at the prison; Doc, a crooked cop serving time; and Kurt Kennedy, the disabled veteran who was Romy's pursuer. For all the characters—and none are heroes—the question is the same: How can a person with only bad options make good decisions?
The Mars Room is more than a novel; it's an investigation, an exercise in empathy, an eyes-wide-open work of art.