Book Review: The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room tells the story of one woman’s life inside the prison system

– Contributed by Jenny Zoe Casey

In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner ( considers our criminal justice system from a rare vantage point – that of a vulnerable young woman who is both subject to it and victimized by it.

Kushner’s protagonist, Romy, is just a few years shy of a youth spent in the crevices of working class San Francisco, amongst a cohort trapped in cycles of petty crime, drug use, dysfunction, and poverty. The mother of a young boy whose father is absent, she makes her living as a lap dancer.

For reasons that seem rational and easy to understand, Romy finds herself the recipient of two consecutive life sentences, plus a ludicrous additional six years. Thus we are introduced to her experience of life in a women’s prison.

According to an interview she gave Deborah Treisman of the New Yorker (, Kushner set out to learn everything she could about California’s prison system. Her narrative is well researched and richly observed, and her ability to evoke experiences many readers will never have is unparalleled. The Mars Room provides a nuanced, fascinating framework for considering a legal system that not only fails to protect its most vulnerable constituents, but rather – robotic and inexorable – causes great harm.


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