The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a novel that seems to come at the reader from so many different angles that you end up wondering, at the end of the tale, if you were suppose to like it at all. Or instead are simply suppose to recognize it. It is in fact, two stories in one. That of a marriage and a family derailed by a single terrible mistake. Then that of the horrific lives of sex slaves and the people who traffic them.

When Richard and Kristin Chapman agree to hold Richard’s younger brother’s bachelor party in their home, they expect a certain amount of drinking and bad behavior. But what they could not expect is that the night would end in murder.

Richard is the good son. The older brother who always makes the right decisions. A beautiful wife. A lovely young daughter. A successful career in investment banking that has allowed him to move his family into a rather upscale neighborhood. His younger brother has always been immature and rakish and his friends are much the same. Young men in their thirties but are still living their lives as if they were in a fraternity. Tonight it would be no different. Kristin and their daughter go to her mother’s for the night and Richard is left in charge. There is a torrent of drinking and it is not long before the night’s entertainment arrives. Two strippers and their burly Russian bodyguards. But these girls are not just strippers and it doesn’t take long for the night to sink into a cesspool of sex and debauchery and then, suddenly, one of the girls takes a knife and cuts open the throat of one of the bodyguards. Quickly, before anyone could react there are gunshots and the other Russian lays dead as well in Richard’s house.

What comes next is the slow erosion and destruction of Richard’s life. His wife convinced yet trying not to believe that he had been unfaithful. The story of what happened is quickly on the news and his home is invaded by police and media alike. His career is frozen and his employer must decide what to do and there is the sickening realization that these girls were not just strippers. They were not hookers or escorts. That the girls who were in his house were in fact sex slaves. Girls who were kidnapped and raped and beaten and tortured and brought to America to work for their masters. They were slaves and worse is the real possibility that may have been underage as well.

Alexandra was a teenage girl who dreamed of being a ballerina when she was taken from her home and raped by her handlers. They brutalized her and used her until she was ready to become a commodity they could sell. Now in America, on the run from the police and the Russian mobsters who will want her dead, she doesn’t know where to turn. No one had ever been kind to her, except for the older man in the nice house where her and Sonya killed their guards. The man named Richard.

This novel is told in several voices, that of Richard and Kristin and their young daughter as they come to terms with what happened in their home. How they as a family can move forward or even if they should. The truth that no matter what happens they will always be viewed, at their schools and their jobs and their neighborhood, as that family. A scandal that will always stain them.

The other voice is that of Alexandra as we learn directly from her how she came to be a courtesan, as she refers to herself. It is brutal and heart-wrenching and if you are shocked by the truth of what sex trafficking is, then perhaps this is not your book. but perhaps that is all the more reason it should be. Prostitution, like gambling is often called a victim less crime. The story Alexandra tells will tear that lie apart.

What I found somewhat disturbing about The Guest Room is that there is not a single male character that is a good guy. Not one. Not even Richard who in his attempt to right a wrong simply makes everything worse and pays the price for it. From the men who stole Alexandra and the ones who keep her, to the frat boys that are the party goers. They are all, in a word, assholes. Not a single one that can be painted in a good light. Not a single one shows outrage at the plight of the girls. No not one. All of them trying to deflect responsibility, all of them looking to cover their asses now that the word has gotten out.

The theme of this story is that sex trafficking is a horrible crime and that is true and told very well here.

The other theme is that men are pigs. All men. Seriously, to tell this story you had to make all men into a single caricature? No, that part is just lazy.

The Guest Room is a well written book about the horrors of sex trafficking and the impact that infidelity and scandal, even if it didn’t happen like everyone thinks it did, can destroy a family. Not only the relationship between husband and wife, but more so, the one between father and daughter.

Oh and that men are pigs.

Really.

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