The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – ARC Review

Title: The Mars Room

Author: Rachel Kushner

Genre: General Fiction

Publisher: Vintage Publishing, Penguin Random House UK

Summary: from Amazon

Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences, plus six years, at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. Outside is the world from which she has been permanently severed: the San Francisco of her youth, changed almost beyond recognition. The Mars Room strip club where she once gave lap dances for a living. And her seven-year-old son, Jackson, now in the care of Romy’s estranged mother.

Inside is a new reality to adapt to: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive. The deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner details with humour and precision. Daily acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike. Allegiances formed over liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through sewage pipes.

Romy sees the future stretch out ahead of her in a long, unwavering line – until news from outside brings a ferocious urgency to her existence, challenging her to escape her own destiny and culminating in a climax of almost unbearable intensity. Through Romy – and through a cast of astonishing characters populating The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner presents not just a bold and unsentimental panorama of life on the margins of contemporary America, but an excoriating attack on the prison-industrial complex.


This is a really interestingly written book. I haven’t read any of Kushner’s previous work so her style took a little time for me to adjust to. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness in the sense that the characters thoughts change direction quite frequently and without warning. This can be slightly jarring a times but once used to it, I found it quite effective. However, I can see some people finding it slightly off putting because it can be a little hard to follow.

I did not particularly like the main character, Romy, at times. She is harsh and difficult to warm to but it is impossible not to feel for her and her situation at times. The book does very much throw the realities some people have to live with into stark relief and it does feel like some people are just stuck in a horrendous cycle of darkness. The women depicted in The Mars Room are all so different and very extreme but they do feel completely realistic and plausible which makes the book a harsh, unflinching read at times. This story highlights the many injustices and serious problems embedded in the legal and prison systems. The book is set in America but plenty of these issues are present in a multitude of places and The Mars Room doesn’t pull any punches showing the violence, brutality and depression that seems to be a constant in prison life.

I can’t say in all honesty that I really enjoyed this read because it is pretty relentless in its bleakness. Saying that, I still thinks it’s an incredibly worthwhile book. It’s something quite different and the structure lends itself relatively well to the story. I think it’s important to hear these kinds of stories to show how different other people’s lives are and how, whilst there are a thousand small moments that lead to the incarceration of these characters, sometimes all people can see is the end result. Not an easy book but an essential one I think.


I received this e-arc from Netgalley in exchange for a completely honest review.

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