How would you cope if you knew you had to spend the rest of your life in prison? Romy Hall is facing two life sentences, plus time. Her previous life stripping at the Mars Room has been traded for a life she must learn to live behind bars.
We quickly learn that all is not what it seems. Romy is not just a low-life stripper, she is a mother, she is intelligent and educated defying the expectations of those around her, as many of the women she is confined with do. As the reason for Romy's arrest and incarceration start to unravel we are confronted with the stark injustices of society, a world where the decks are stacked against these women, and a world where to survive you have to break the rules.
Kushner does an incredible job of painting the desperation of Romy's life outside the prison, and the myriad of emotions she feels as she tries to survive inside. The portrayal of life behind bars is simultaneously mind-numbing, infuriating, intriguing, and sometimes funny. The women strive to make meaning, to continue living, in the face of what is most people's worst nightmare. But for some of these women, it’s the norm.
Romy's situation is compounded by her worry for her young son on the outside. The injustices and bureaucracies that follow are sickening. Kushner's treatment of the plot ingeniously mirrors what life for the women must be like - the slow pace marking the day after day drudgery, the plotlessness marking the directionless life they lead, and the constant detours into the stories of others illustrative of the forced proximity to others.
The story is a compelling exploration of the incarceration of women in the states and in Romy's case, from how she makes her living, to her crime, to her relationship with her son, all highlight the difficulties and double standards women still face today. This book should enrage readers and is devastating, with some of the stories profoundly sad. We catch glimmers of hope, but they are fleeting and the end of the novel crushes any fantasies we hold of a happy ending, reminding us that women serving life sentences don't get happy endings.
The complexities of this book are incredibly clever and a stark reminder to readers that being a 'criminal' doesn't necessarily make you a bad person, and that the law works in favour of some and not others. There are characters in this book who hold the idea that these women deserve this life because they are guilty, and they are just the kind of people who would benefit from reading this book. A searing indictment of modern society, this is a feminist blockbuster which deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist.