The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (2016)
As he so frequently does, Bohjalian delves into an issue without making it feel like an "issue" book. Human trafficking has been getting a lot of attention (though I'd say not as much as it probably deserves) and reading a story about a victim, even if it is fiction, is enlightening and horrifying. Alexandra was just a regular girl with dreams of becoming a dancer until the deaths of her parents left her vulnerable. Thinking she was going to an elite dance school in Moscow, she was entrusted into the care of a man who trapped her in a horrible and dangerous life from which she couldn't escape.
Bohjalian does not shy away from the graphic details of what young women like Alexandra go through once they are abducted, and there's another storyline about a particularly smarmy attempt at blackmail. Honestly, the whole thing kind of made me feel dirty. Which, these are dirty subjects so I guess that's a sign of effective writing. Well played, Chris Bohjalian.
The parts of the story focused on Richard's wife and daughter, however, were introspective and touching. This novel expertly captured the fragility of marriage, illustrating how very easy betrayal can be, while also asking at what point you've actually crossed a line. Richard's wife Kristin reacted to the situation as you might expect, clearly upset with her husband but also committed to their marriage. She was easy to relate to, completely reasonable and sympathetic while still being angry and emotionally distraught. Nine-year-old Melissa's perspective was poignant and sometimes funny as she tried to make sense of what happened in her house. I loved the consideration she put into comparing the facts of what happened with her limited knowledge about sex. She had the basic idea of what sex slaves are, even if it wasn't totally fleshed out. She wasn't infantilized like children so often are in books, but given a level of knowledge and awareness about the world that was more realistic.
I was struck by the family's apparent nonchalance regarding the bloodstains left at their house. It never occurred to me to think about what it must be like to return to your home when it has become a crime scene. Of course the blood was shocking at first, but I suppose it wasn't much compared with everything else they were dealing with, and they had no choice but to just live with it until they could get rid of the couch and get the walls repapered. None of that happens instantly. It just stood out to me as I've never seen this situation portrayed in a book, and I keep thinking about it.
Somehow this felt different from other books by Chris Bohjalian, but I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps just because some of the subject matter was so seedy, and perhaps because one of the main characters is a man and his protagonists are usually female. At any rate, I became engrossed in this story right away. I really felt for these people and everything they went through, and will likely keep thinking about all of them for a while to come.
The Guest Room will be published in January 2016. I received my copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley. I was not compensated for this review.