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.