The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a dark, disturbing look into the world of sex trafficking, as well as a meditation on love, marriage, and the tests a relationship can withstand.
Richard Chapman — 40 years old, a well-off investment banker with a beautiful Westchester home, a lovely wife, and terrific 9-year-old daughter — has the best of intentions when he agrees to host a bachelor party for his younger brother at his home. His brother is a careless, selfish sort with a bunch of equally immature friends, but Richard figures having the party at his house is better than ending up in a strip club. And sure, everyone espects that there will be a stripper showing up — but what they don’t expect is two beautiful, young strippers who seem willing, for a price, to do much more than strip. And they definitely don’t expect the two intimidating guys who seem to be the girls’ handlers, bodyguards… or something even shadier.
Things get out of control, and quickly. And before the night is through, one of the strippers has stabbed one of the guards in the throat, the other guard has been shot, and the girls have run off, leaving behind a group of shocked and terrified men, a house that’s a bloody mess, and at least one husband with a lot of explaining to do.
Richard’s world is immediately turned upside down. He has to explain to his wife that while he was tempted by the offer of sex (and in fact, went upstairs with one of the girls), he did not actually have sex with her. He has to face the fact that the girls involved may have been minors. He has to deal with the immediate tabloid headlines about orgies in the suburbs and the subsequent damage to his reputation. And on top of all this, he can’t get the girl named Alexandra out of his mind. He went upstairs with her, even took off his clothes, but was somehow so touched by her youth and vulnerability that all he wanted to do was protect her.
At the same time, each chapter ends with a segment told from Alexandra’s point of view. Alexandra is not her real name, but it’s the name she’s used for the past five years, ever since she was lured away at age 14 from her small town in Armenia by the promise of ballet lessons in Moscow. What she got in Moscow was not ballet, but rape, imprisonment, and forced sexual slavery. Deprived of all access the to outside world, Alexandra was brutalized and forced into a life as (as she puts it) a “courtesan” and a “sex toy”. She and other girls her age are kept locked up, kept pretty, and trained to please the endless stream of wealthy and powerful men whom they service. There’s no other word for it — it’s horrifying.
The intersection of Richard’s world and Alexandra’s world blows both of their lives apart. Richard’s marriage is in crisis, his daughter is disgusted, his home feels violated, and he’s been placed on leave by his banking firm, which wishes to distance themselves from the lurid, sordid details that the press is delighting in sharing. Richard’s brother’s friends are being shady, and while Richard is not in legal trouble, he has plenty of reason to worry about his future.
Meanwhile, Alexandra and the other girl, Sonja, are on the run, but without resources — no place to turn for help, no ID or credit cards, nothing but the clothes on their backs, the cash in their pockets, and the guns they’ve taken from the dead guards. They know that they can’t stay in New York, with the Russian gangsters who own them wanting them dead, but they have no experience being free or making their own way, and have no one they can trust.
To say that this book is upsetting is an understatement. I couldn’t put it down or look away, but it left me feeling so bleak and full of despair. The fact that Alexandra’s story is fictional doesn’t mean that these sorts of things aren’t taking place in the real world. The Guest Room provides a peek into the world of sexual slavery, and it’s grim and dirty and depressing as hell.
Which is not to say that The Guest Room is not a good read. It’s actually completely engrossing, and once I started, I couldn’t stop reading. The main characters are all so well-developed that we get to really understand them as complex people, not cookie-cutter characters. Richard screws up, but he’s still a good person. He loves his wife and child, and wants to do the right thing, and still, inadvertently, brings all sorts of horror and chaos into their previously perfect lives. Richard’s wife Kristin is humiliated and hurt, but she also loves her husband and values their life together. She doesn’t always do what’s expected, and the author avoids the more clichéd roads with Kristin by showing the deeply thought-out choices that she makes.
Alexandra is a tragic, fascinating character. Seeing the world through her eyes in the parts she narrates, we get to understand what hopelessness truly is. Her voice is distinct and feels very real, and it’s incredibly disturbing to enter into Alexandra’s intensely awful existence and understand why she thinks and behaves as she does.
The Guest Room is powerful, upsetting, and impossible to put down. Chris Bohjalian is a masterful writer who seems to be at home in any genre. This book is a crime thriller, but it’s also a character study and even, in an odd way, a story about what makes a good marriage. I can’t say that it’s a pleasant read, but it’s certainly a great one.
Title: The Guest Room
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley