Told from the perspectives of prisoners, victims, and staff, The Mars Room (Scribner, $27) Rachel Kushner’s stunning depiction of a women’s prison centers on Romy Hall, twenty-nine and serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years. Technically, she’s guilty: she killed a man. But only after enduring all she could of his abuse. Because she worked as a lap dancer, however, her exhausted public defender believed she would hurt her case if she testified, so her story never came out in court. Kushner evokes this and other injustices in an even-toned manner, letting the outrages speak for themselves. They speak most volubly and poignantly concerning mothers and their children. Romy, mother of a seven-year-old, loses her parental rights, though no one tells her this until her own mother dies and she doesn’t know where her son is. Her instinct is to go to him. But she can’t. Nor is there anyone to call. In a brilliant narrative leap, Kushner juxtaposes Romy’s helplessness with that of Ted Kaczysnki. Outraged by the despoliation of nature, and with few resources to stop it, he turned into the Unabomber rather than into a second Thoreau. As Kushner powerfully shows, the road to prison is made of many small, irrevocable steps.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner