“The Mars Room” was the book that I most dreaded reading once the final list of the Tournament of Books 2019 contest was published. The story of a stripper sentenced to three life sentences in a California prison for killing her stalker didn’t seem like the kind of reading that I’d enjoy. In some ways I was right — this wasn’t a fun read. What I hadn’t anticipated was being moved and touched by a story not so dissimilar from those that I’ve recently read and heard about in the news or in “This American Life”.
“The Mars Room” is about as far from light reading as you can get. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s violent. It’s relentless. It’s excellent.
We are living in a time where at least in parts of America there seems to be a growing awareness of the failings and injustices of their criminal justice system. There are a lot of non-fiction pieces coming out now that are bringing to light the toll mass incarceration, the “war on drugs” and prison privatization have taken on communities. So why read a work of fiction, no matter how well researched, when you can read an article or a book, listen to podcasts or watch documentaries on the American criminal justice system and the people at its mercy?
Because Kushner lets you into Romy’s mind, into her fellow inmates minds, into her victim’s mind. You see the people working in the system and incarcerated in the system as intimately as you possibly can – their mistakes, the tragedy of their lives, their big and small moments, their cruelties and their kindnesses. They aren’t opaque any more, they aren’t invisible. You get to see not only the systems of poverty, injustice, racism and abuse that started them on their respective journeys to prison, but you get to see them, to experience them as full human beings. That’s what makes it so terrible, and such a great work of fiction to read.