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‘The Mars Room’ review: Rachel Kushner’s third novel is an essential read

The heartbreaking book might finally land the author a National Book Award.

Rachel Kushner's third novel is

Rachel Kushner's third novel is "The Mars Room." Photo Credit: Chloe Aftel / Scribner

Reading Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Mars Room,” is a profoundly affecting experience, very nearly overwhelming, and yet it absolutely must be read.

It is the humane, candid story of Romy Hall and others in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, lives that were lost or forsaken, thrown away or taken. Kushner’s first two novels (“Telex from Cuba,” “The Flamethrowers”) were National Book Award finalists. It would be baffling if “The Mars Room” does not win this year’s.

Romy grows up in San Francisco, her childhood devoid of authority, leaving a void she fills with drugs and charismatic figures who exhibited strength. Dancing at the titular strip club Mars Room, she tries to survive on her own terms: no extras like some women provide, no seducing regulars into special relationships. Despite this, Kurt Kennedy still becomes obsessed with her. When Romy finally breaks free, he refuses to let her go.

At 29, she is serving consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker, her young son now a motherless memory of the world left behind.

In the prison, many of the women are unapologetic. Others, like Romy, have regrets. But Kushner doesn’t allow them any excuses. With assured pacing and powerful control of her craft, she weaves characters and timelines in a wholly engrossing world that feels sadly familiar. Every word, every aside, every revelation drags you forward, battering you, and yet you can’t stop.

You will root for Romy, even though you know her situation is hopeless. And your heart will break as you read about the choices that she made, especially in those times when it seems she did not truly have a choice, those times when the system and society and a man were all fighting to lay her low.

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