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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Books |
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The Mars Room

Romy Hall is 27 years old when she kills her stalker, a client at the strip club where she works, with a crowbar. Her public defender in court is overworked and underpaid, and lands her with two life sentences in Stanville Prison. Her son falls into the foster care system and is soon lost to her.
With admitted parallels to Orange is the New Black, The Mars Room knits together the perspectives of central and peripheral characters in Romy’s life. We hear from her fellow inmates, who are crooked cops and killers of children; from prison workers, laden with guilt yet also transfixed by their own power; and even from Romy’s stalker himself, in the moments preceding his death. The narrative dips in and out of time, which lends it a detached and disorienting tone.
Kushner constructs a rich portrayal of San Francisco as Romy recalls her life before incarceration. Intricate imagery of the city juxtaposes her pared back descriptions of Stanville Prison, so that Romy’s present day feels like a semi-reality compared to the more fully developed San Francisco of her past. This creates a real sensation of claustrophobia when we return to the prison. The strong sense of place that Kushner builds in The Mars Room showcases the visceral and evocative command of language that made her previous books so successful.
Although Kushner’s delivery shines, the success of this novel lies in the political statement it makes. The Mars Room is a scathing critique of the criminal justice system, and of contemporary America which calls itself a place of equal opportunity. As we learn of each character’s pitiful lot in life, with abusive and poverty-stricken childhoods, the prisoners are reminded by guards that they deserve no pity for landing themselves here. In a nod to the fallacies of neoliberalism, Kushner points out the obscenity of using mass incarceration as a punishment for victims of social issues.

The Mars Room is an important addition to contemporary literature for what it has to say on inequality and crime in the United States. For the average reader however, it’s deeply unsettling and difficult to enjoy. At times the terrible fates of the characters come across as torture porn. The writing is bleak, and no character is hugely endearing. Kushner creates a world devoid of any hope, and it’s emotionally draining to take in.
It’s not a particularly appealing picture, but hold on now. Although it wouldn’t be recommended as lighthearted beach reading, this novel serves as a textbook for any student with a concern for social justice. Reading The Mars Room is like working in hospitality: it’s unpleasant, but by the end of it you’re better equipped to move through the world with empathy and care.

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