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Book review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The headline in The Washington Post read: “If you like despair and ‘Orange is the New Black’, You’ll Love The Mars Room’. After having loved The Mars Room, it made me think twice about how much I like to read stories of despair. I wonder if it’s a problem. (If it is, it’s a problem which many readers have, given the popularity of The Mars Room.)

However, I wonder whether ‘enjoyed’ is the right word. Perhaps immersed or changed might better represent how I felt after reading Rachel Kushner’s widely celebrated novel.

The Mars Room is the story of Romy’s experience of poverty in the US, where she is imprisoned after killing her stalker.

The story details Romy’s experience in jail, alongside the circumstances in the Mars Room strip club that led her to meet the man who would become her stalker.

There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the book, whether it is in Romy’s pre-incarceration life or after she has been dealt two life sentences.

In an article about her book, Kushner wrote that her novel explores the powerlessness of those living in poverty, and the ease in which poor decisions could be made by those who had so few options. She wrote that the ease of achieving goodness for the privileged, and how to be good was often merely to be lucky.

Kushner introduces the reader to various inmates, whose crimes were often hideous, but who are not portrayed as hideous people. She also writes about Romy’s relationship with her son, who she intuitively wants to protect when she lashes out at her stalker when he arrives on her doorstep. The situation reveals the lack of choices that Romy has – to live in fear of a man or to remove the man herself and suffer the equally terrible consequences.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants their perspectives challenged and who aren’t afraid of despair. It might also help if you like Orange is the New Black.

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