Rachel Kushner brings us another searing look at life on the margins with "The Mars Room."

Romy Hall killed a man. This is a fact. The man she killed was stalking her. This is also a fact, but, as far as the jury was concerned, the first fact mattered more than the second. That’s why she’s serving two life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley. Romy soon learns that life in prison is, in many respects, like her former life working at the Mars Room, a down-market strip club in San Francisco. The fight for dominance among the powerless looks much the same anywhere, Romy explains, and this novel is very much a novel about powerlessness. Romy is smart, she loves her son, but the odds were against her from the beginning, and most of the stories that intertwine with hers are similar in both their general outlines and their particulars. Chaotic family backgrounds, heavy drug use and sex work are common themes. Several of the women Romy meets have been in and out of the jail for much of their lives. There are exceptions, like Betty the one-time leg model, who paid a contract killer to murder her husband for life insurance money and then put out a hit on the hit man because she was afraid he would talk. She becomes something of a celebrity inside Stanville. The cop who killed the hit man also becomes a major character. He’s different from the women in this novel because he once had considerable power, but he, too, has a history of abuse and neglect. Gordon Hauser, who teaches GED–prep classes at Stanville, has more agency than any other main character, but he quickly learns the limits of his ability to help any of the women he meets. This is, fundamentally, a novel about poverty and how our structures of power do not work for the poor, and Kushner does not flinch. If the novel lags a bit in the long sections of backstory, it’s because the honest depiction of prison life is so gripping.

"The Mars Room" is an unforgiving look at a brutal system.

(Kushner will speak In conversation with Deb Olin Unferth and sign "The Mars Room" at 7 p.m. Thursday at Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. Information: bookpeople.com)

Connecting a small world

One hasty decision sets in motion decades of consequences for interconnected families in Colorado in Wendy J. Fox's "If the Ice Had Held."

The ice didn’t hold, in 1974, on the night Sammy Henderson took a shortcut home. If it had, he would have kept his promise to 14-year-old Irene, pregnant with his baby — that he would marry her and she would finish school. Instead, Sammy drowned in the frozen river, which forced both Irene and Sammy's sister, Kathleen, to switch tracks and arrange an alternate future for the baby, Melanie. Fox pushes her story out from this central cluster of events like cracks spreading on a sheet of ice. Using seven voices to narrate their separate but overlapping experiences across the years, from 1974 to 2007, she builds up a vista of linked histories and emotional journeys. Marriages often split up, children are frequently raised by a single parent, and infidelities regularly occur. Grown-up Melanie has a job in Denver and a string of casual, married lovers. One of them, Brian, the son of the policeman who found Sammy’s body, is married to Jenny, who has met Melanie through work. These and other characters — Melanie’s stepfather, Jenny’s mother — add other facets, yet loneliness, departure and a quest for some kind of fulfillment drive almost all of them. The men are generally more faithless than the women; the value of leaving or being left is debated. One touchstone is the reliably joyful friendship that endures between Kathleen and Irene, which warms and embraces Melanie, too. Fox delivers finely observed, lyrical, detached storytelling, persuasive in its depiction of everyday unions and choices, although her decision to interconnect some characters in a late, jarring encounter seems a coincidence too far. Yet this is eloquent tale-spinning lit by unshowy portraiture.

A small (too small?) world, but a perceptible talent.