“It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.”
“This is a love story. Mike’s love story.
Mike Hayes fought his way out of a brutal childhood and into a quiet, if lonely, life before he met Verity Metcalf. V taught him about love, and in return, Mike has dedicated his life to making her happy. He’s found the perfect home, the perfect job; he’s sculpted himself into the physical ideal V has always wanted. He knows they’ll be blissfully happy together.
It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been returning his e-mails or phone calls.
It doesn’t matter that she says she’s marrying Angus.
It’s all just part of the secret game they used to play. If Mike watches V closely, he’ll see the signs. If he keeps track of her every move, he’ll know just when to come to her rescue . . .”
My Thoughts: For the most part, The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are two very different books. One has a female narrator, one a male. One takes place in the United States, the other in the United Kingdom. One involves people with little to nothing, the other involves people who have more money than they can spend. One reads like a memoir, the other reads like a love letter. There should be nothing that connects these two very different stories to one another, except there is one key element in both. The portrayal of the women, their supposed crimes, and subsequent punishments are unfair and but unfortunately all too commonplace in society’s ongoing perpetuation of rape culture.
In The Mars Room, we get a down-and-dirty look at prison life for women and a glimpse into the milieu for which prison is one of the only options available to them. For those readers like me who grew up with a modicum of privilege, Romy’s life before her sentencing is an eye-opening experience. Ms. Kushner portrays the downtrodden – the homeless, the junkies, the alcoholics, the poorest of the poor – with dedication and delicacy, neither making excuses for them nor softening the harsh truths of their existence but doing so in a way that is not exploitative nor sensationalized. She portrays Romy’s life with empathy and an attention to detail that highlights her detailed research into the California prison system and experience of life on the streets. Given her careful research, it makes Romy’s case that much more infuriating – because you know this is one novel in which fiction is fact and that there is someone in Romy’s exact situation sitting in jail for the wrong reason and with no recourse for justice. The Mars Room is by no means an easy read, nor should it be for those who will never be forced to sell their body for money or who will never know what it feels like to literally have no food and no money to buy some. However, it is a book which should be required reading as it shines a light on the prison system and the prejudices and discrimination that exist for women within it.
While The Mars Room is a hard-hitting, behind-the-scenes true story type novel, Our Kind of Cruelty reminds me of Caroline Kepnes’ You. The problem is that Mike is no Joe, neither as well-read nor as charming. Mike’s tragic childhood does make him a sympathetic character and his love for V is as open and honest as you can get. Even while you start harboring doubts about Mike’s version of reality, you still want him to get the girl in the end. That is right until you realize towards what Ms. Hall is driving. By then, all bets are off.
Both novels are important in the light they shine on women and the justice system. The lack of justice in both novels is infuriating, which is exactly the point. In this era of heightened awareness of gender treatment, we should be outraged by the injustice both Romy and V experience because Romy and V are all women. Novels like The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are vital for increasing awareness even further and providing avenues of dialogue necessary to make much-needed changes. Women are angry, and our anger is beginning to trickle into the arts in greater numbers in hopes of fostering such dialogue. The Mars Room and Our Kind of Cruelty are two new examples of women using their anger for good and provide two fantastic examples of gender bias to use in our arguments challenging it.