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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

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I believe the purpose of art; be it literature, film, painting, sculpture, music, dance or whatever is to create an emotional reaction. While reading Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room I felt sordid, distrustful, squeamish, sad, hopeful, horrified and angry. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

The story starts with a good guy, Richard, who is in his forties and happily married to Kristin. They have a nine-year old daughter. Richard works hard and while he doesn’t have many friends, he and his wife love each other.

When Richard’s younger brother Philip was to be married, Richard offered to host the bachelor party at his and Kristin’s home, while his wife and daughter spent the weekend at her mother’s house. Unfortunately, the bachelor party got out of control faster than a teenager’s bash which had been advertised on Facebook.

Richard, Philip and his friends were very drunk by the time the strippers arrived at the party with their Russian bodyguards. The women stripped, then performed some fairly graphically-described acts before having sex with some of the men.

Richard went upstairs with Alexandra, but at the very last moment remembered he was a married man and stopped himself. He and Alexandra talked for a while before returning to the party, when Sonja, the other woman, took a knife from Richard’s kitchen and killed one of the bodyguards as Richard, Philip and the other men watched in shock. Moments later, the other bodyguard was shot dead with his own gun. Alexandra and Sonja fled and Richard was left to deal with the dead bodies, the police and his wife.

The police determined that Alexandra and Sonja were Armenian sex slaves, owned by the Russian gangsters and that they were possibly underage. The remainder of the story was what happened next to Alexandra and Sonja, and to Richard, Kristin and their daughter.

Despite (or possibly because of) the awful emotions I felt while reading The Guest Room, I could not stop thinking about the story while I was at work and at home. I found myself looking around at the male passengers on my train in disgust, thinking and suspecting the worst of them after reading about the male characters’ behaviour and morals, and even worse, wondering what my male relations and friends would do in a similar situation. I decided I didn’t want to know. When it came out that the girls were possibly sex-slaves, my emotions ramped up even more. Just how greedy and wicked does a person have to be to kidnap and sell another person for their own profit? Some things are immeasurable.

I did feel hope from time-to-time that things would work out okay for various characters, and that the gangsters and others connected with the sex-trafficking would be punished in a way that would leave them suffering for eternity. I also felt proud of characters who I had come to care about when they behaved bravely and honestly.

The Guest Room is fast-paced and I was unwilling to put the book down until I finished the story, despite the unpleasantness of the subject matter. Everything I’ve read by Chris Bohjalian has been similarly addictive and emotionally draining and I expect the emotions stirred up in me while reading The Guest Room will stay with me for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

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I’ve read other books by Chris Bohjalian and enjoyed them, namely Midwives and The Double Bind. Both had twists that I didn’t see coming. The twist in The Double Bind infuriated me so much that I still think about it, at least five years after I read the book.

Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands didn’t have a twist, but I kept expecting one, based on my previous experience. It didn’t matter though. The idea for the story is good, I liked the character telling the story and there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Perfect. No twist.

The story is told by Emily Shepherd, the teenage daughter of an engineer who was in charge of a nuclear power plant in Vermont which had a massive meltdown. Emily’s father is blamed by the media for the incident, as he has a history of drinking too much, as did Emily’s mother. Emily’s parents were both killed during the meltdown. Emily tells the story through her journal, which skips back and forwards in time as she thinks of what she wants to tell.

When the problems at the power plant started, Emily was at school. Very soon after the school students and community were evacuated, rumours that Emily’s father was to blame for the meltdown begin circulating. Her father’s reputation suffers in a trial by media, and he becomes the most hated man in the world. Emily is also conscious that her safety is endangered because of her father’s reputation. When Emily learns that the authorities are conducting an investigation and intend to interview her about her father’s possible drunkenness on the night of the meltdown, she runs away.

Emily hides her true identity, by calling herself ‘Abby Bliss’. For a while she lived in a group house, prostituting herself for money. She learns where she can steal food and clothes from, and starts using drugs and cutting herself. Eventually Emily leaves the group house and builds an igloo on the street made of rubbish bags and leaves. While she is living in the igloo she takes on the responsibility of an eleven year old boy called Cameron, who has been abused in foster care.

Eventually, things come to a head. Not surprisingly, even before the meltdown, Emily was a troubled teen. She is very bright, although she didn’t apply herself to her school work. The only thing she works hard at is writing poetry, and she keeps that a secret. Emily has enormous respect and admiration for Emily Dickinson and points out in her journal similarities in her own life to Emily Dickinson’s.

This book’s plot probably owes something to the Fukushima Daiicchi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, which was caused by a tsunami, which was in turn caused by an earthquake. I can imagine the author thinking “What if,” and this book being created as a result.

I’m grateful that Australia doesn’t have nuclear power. It is something I will never vote for. I’m not naïve, I know Australia will run out of fuel for power one day and we will need alternatives. I don’t know what the answer is. Wind turbines, (it is said), can’t provide all of the power we will need, although they are becoming more and more common here. They are certainly  noisy and ugly, but no one will ever die if things go wrong.

I recommend Close Your Eyes. Hold Hands to anyone who likes to think about a plot both while they are reading and after they have finished the book. I think this story will be with me for some time to come.

 

 

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