Chris Bohjalian | The Guest Room (Vintage Contemporaries)

Even though it wasn’t the relaxing read I was expecting, I still devoured the pages, finishing the book in just two sittings.


Sometimes the best things are those you weren’t expecting: in this case, a book that arrived unannounced in the mail. The sultry cover led me to expect something along the lines of Gone Girl, mixed with sexual intrigue and perhaps a bit of sleaze.

The perfect beach read, right?

Instead, there I was on a Cancun beach, reading a much deeper tale: a man who went too far, yes, but also a close look at Algerian human sex trafficking.

Yes, you read that right.

Even though it wasn’t the relaxing read I was expecting, I still devoured the pages, finishing the book in just two sittings. I didn’t love all the characters—but the author didn’t mean for them all to be welcomed by his readers. The majority of them were well drawn, the pen-and-ink sketches swathed with watercolor between the lines.

guest-roomHere is what you learn on the second page: Richard Chapman hosts a bachelor party for his slimy younger brother Phillip. The evening’s “entertainment,” hired by Philip’s equally skeevy friend Spencer: two strippers-cum-prostitutes, brought there against their will. Before the night is out, the Russian handlers will have been killed and the girls, blood on their hands and fighting for their freedom, have gone on the run.

Richard’s house, meanwhile—the one he shares with his wife Kristin and nine-year-old daughter Melissa—is a gory crime scene. When one of the girls killed the first bodyguard, she did so with a kitchen knife to the neck. There’s blood spatter everywhere: the couch, the carpet, the wallpaper, a rather expensive painting by a near-master. While the police investigate, Richard can’t go home—nor can he sleep at his mother-in-law’s Manhattan apartment, where his family is staying and his wife can hardly bear to look at him. She knows Philip had sex with one of the girls…but did Richard? And how can she trust him: about this, or ever?

Interspersed with chapters about Richard and those in his orbit are those from the point of view of one of the girls. Alexandra tells us how she came to be in America, servicing men and kept against her will. It’s a sad story, and one that’s probably all too common: A girl’s parents die when she is young and a family “friend” steps in with promises of a ballet career in another country. Of course, the girl’s opportunity never materializes, but his does. Alexandra enters a web of handlers who imprison her in a hotel room, her only visitors the men they bring daily to have sex with her. What else is she to do but take the chance when it presents itself?

Soon Alexandra’s story catches up with the real-time of Richard’s. It’s obvious, from the brief time they spent together, the two are linked; we have to wait, though to find out how—and what this means. A didn’t-see-it-coming surprise at the end will have you thinking about the book long after you’ve turned the last page. | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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