The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
Throughout his career, Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on literary thrill rides through time and space, offering spellbinding glances into the emotional complexities of both past and present, all with an intrepid honesty that catapults his fiction into a realm of literary truth. The one thing he never does: shy away from the hard stuff. In his examination of human nature, and the flawed cultures that are born over and over again as a result, Bohjalian goes into great and challenging depths to pay homage to the unthinkable truths that, as they say, are so much stranger than the fiction built upon them. This was especially true of his 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, with its unforgettable romance set against the backdrop of the unconscionable Armenian genocide. His newest work, The Guest Room, is in keeping with such tradition.
With the palpable tension that comes naturally to Bohjalian, combined with his willingness to “go there”, he shares a story of shattered dreams and shattered realities when the seedy world of sex trafficking breaches the boundaries of New York’s upper-middle class. The result is a novel that engrosses readers in a fast-paced story of suspense even as it chills their blood with its observations on the lives of women forced into sex slavery, and the culture that allows it – maybe even promotes it.
The Guest Room is the story of Richard Chapman, an investment banker with a solid marriage, a happy family, and few troubles – until his brother’s bachelor party, hosted by best man Richard in his own home, becomes first a lascivious scene of debauchery, and then the scene of a murder. Simultaneously, it’s the story of young Alexandra, whose childhood in Armenia – a childhood spent with Barbie dolls and dreams of being a ballerina – vanishes into a world of heartbreak and unspeakable violation. Alexandra and Richard's lives each seem to have entirely separate points of orbit, until she and another girl are taken by their captors to work the bachelor party in well-to-do Bronxville of which he is the host. As Richard’s life reels from the catastrophic impact of the party, he must face a once-pristine marriage now impaled with the shame of his actions. And while he works to salvage his relationship with his wife and daughter, Richard must also wrestle with the realization of Alexandra’s plight and, ultimately, his culpability in her fate. Alexandra, whose story is told in first-person interludes between chapters, is on the run with Sonja, her fellow captive, in a desperate attempt to both evade the police they fear will arrest them and escape the Russian gangsters they’re certain will kill them.
By telling the story from parallel perspectives that follow both Richard and Alexandra (with additional focus on Richard’s wife, Kristin, and - most jarring - their nine year-old daughter, Melissa), Bohjalian is able to reach the core of his characters’ experiences. This is a style he has used with great skill in several of his past novels, shaping the stories around it in entirely different ways, and it continues to serve him well here. The reader is, as a result, pulled into myriad emotional directions as the vast difference between Richard and Alexandra’s lives – and their ultimate collision – plays out before them. Much of the material here is challenging, from the descriptions of Alexandra’s circumstances to the ribald way Richard’s brother and his friends handle the reality that the presumed strippers at his bachelor party were not, in fact, strippers at all. But the challenges are Bohjalian’s strength; they represent his creative fearlessness at work as he allows his readers in these moments to bear witness to the harrows of the sex trade and to question how civilized their broader society actually is.
Told with warmth and extraordinary insight, The Guest Room reinforces Bohjalian’s reputation as a courageous storyteller, a terrific handler of genres, and a master of literary suspense.
Released as a companion to The Guest Room, Bohjalian has also written a compelling short story, Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There, which features Alexandra in a time just before the events of the novel. The short story reads very well as a prequel to The Guest Room, but could also be read afterward. Or, perhaps, considering especially that despite the nature of the story it has an air somewhat lighter and sweeter to that of the novel’s atmosphere, readers will enjoy the short story both before and after the novel, as a chance to once again share in Alexandra’s experience as a certain famous Manhattan jewelry store works its inexplicable magic on her imagination. Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There is available to read for free in PDF format from Doubleday.