Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers) paints a dark and gritty picture of the U.S. prison system and the larger, contemporary world in her provocative novel, The Mars Room. The action is set at the fictional Stanville Women's Correctional Facility, in the remote Central Valley of California. A diverse cast of inmates--hardscrabble women who formerly lived on the margins of society, suffering from poverty, abuse, neglect, drug addiction and sex exploitation--are forced to adapt and make a life inside prison walls.
The central protagonist is Romy Leslie Hall, a 29-year-old inmate and former lap dancer at the Mars Room, a notorious, seedy strip club in San Francisco. Romy is serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering a man who relentlessly stalked her.
Romy--bright and well-read, despite having grown up in unseemly conditions--has a young son, Jackson, who becomes entangled in the child welfare bureaucracy. Although prison separates Romy from Jackson for four long years--and she is ultimately stripped of her rights to find him--her desperate longing and love for him endures. She goes to great lengths to learn more about his status and track him down.
Romy's tragic, hard-luck story is one of many explored in a complex novel that keeps readers off-balance yet fully immersed. Supporting characters and their sordid proclivities and recidivism--along with subplots about an incarcerated dirty cop and a sensitive teacher at the prison--provide an unflinching look at brutality and power plays within the perimeters of razor wire--and beyond. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines