Gritty, vulgar, upsetting and strange, “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner tells the story of Romy Hall, a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences at a women’s correctional facility in California. In this haunting and undeniably beautiful novel, Romy’s life is presented at the intersection of poverty and misfortune.
Kushner writes, “We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.”
“The Mars Room” is, in many ways, fatalistic. Romy’s life feels impossibly warped by the turbulence and injustice that surrounds it. There are points when she appears a passive or, more aptly, an immobilized observer in the events that lead up to her imprisonment. This forced silence elicits in the reader a need to scream on Romy’s behalf, and Kushner consequently manages to capture the brutality of an existence lived at the periphery of society, of a life that is predetermined by circumstance.
But to remove all agency from Romy Hall would be a grave error. This novel is first and foremost deeply complicated. Just when you think you know who a character is, Kushner changes the script. Which is, I suppose, the point. The takeaway, then, is that when it comes to people who end up incarcerated, we are quick to ascribe a label and write them off in ways that, for those entrenched in the mainstream, seem intangible, but, as Kushner outlines, are in fact very immediate in their effects.
Reading “The Mars Room” is a frenetic experience. Characters’ lives intersect and separate. Their thoughts and the roads they ramble down are given free rein to develop as they will. It is in no way an easily digestible read.
Kushner invokes a dry sense of humor as she leads us down the winding pathways that create the narrative of Romy Hall’s life. By the end, readers find themselves wondering if they’re now breathing “the air of another planet.”