Published by Doubleday
Publication date: January 5th 2016
Chris Bohjalian always manages to tell a great story and in a way that encompasses its truth, but in The Guest Room he delves into the kind of subjects that make us squeamish—the underbelly of our society, a place most of us never hear about. Richard Chamberlain is a happily married investment banker who agrees to host his younger brother’s bachelor party at his home in posh Westchester, New York. He even expects that, given the type of friends his brother has, there will be a stripper. What he does not expect and could not imagine in his wildest dreams-turned-nightmare is that there will be more than one girl, they will be far more than strippers, and that by the end of the night their Russian bodyguards will be dead.
The Guest Room tackles what is becoming known as a global epidemic—the sex slave industry. One of the narrators is Alexandra, an Armenian girl who, after her mother’s death, is told by her boss that he knows people in Moscow who can make her a star ballerina. She is thirteen and agrees to go with him and that is the beginning of the end of any normal life for her. Instead, she is beaten, brutalized and held hostage until her will to escape is broken and her only means of survival is to do what she’s told. By the time several years have passed a beautiful house in Westchester is no different than being locked in a room when it comes to what is done to her, until, that is, her friend Sonja fights back and her situation goes from bad to worse. While the physicality of her life is horrifying, it is the view we are given into the loss of innocence and the quiet resignation she feels that is more depressing.
Bohjalian turns his finely honed sensibilities to all sides of this troubling issue. There are the expected villains—the traffickers who kidnap the girls, drug and rape them, but also the men who hire their services. Theirs is a disturbing and even disgusting nonchalance at the party where they have no problem whatsoever having sex with these young women—and without any question or concern about why they are guarded by huge men with guns. But Bohjalian doesn’t stop there. Using Richard as the fulcrum between these extremes of attitudes and behavior, he widens the circle of impact to include not only Richard’s professional life, but also his wife and his pre-teen daughter. It is their home and lives that are splashed all over the tabloids just as the blood is splashed all over their living room.
The Guest Room is a thriller with no let-up in the action and psychological drama, but at the same time, it is so much more. With a cast that is perfectly curated to hit the sweet spot of any number of modern day issues Bohjalian still manages to capture the reader without manipulation. Instead, the plot carefully and stomach-clenchingly serves his characters as they stagger through the aftermath of a party gone bad. By going beneath the surface of this male rite-of-passage ritual Bohjalian clearly shows that in this day and age it is no longer just harmless or ‘good fun’, if it ever was. Once again, he uses his gift for fiction to bring the klieg-light glare of attention onto the facts of something we’d rather not see but really need to know about. Yes, The Guest Room is sordid and frightening, but the reality it portrays is so much worse.