Review: “The Guest Room” by Chris Bohjalian

In New York Times’ best seller Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, Richard Chapman is, much to his reluctance, throwing his little brother a bachelor party. He expects a keg, some guac and the inevitable stripper to infiltrate the brick and mortar haven that is the suburban home he shares with his wife and their nine-year-old daughter. What he doesn’t expect, is to be drug head first into a world of gangsters and sex trafficking.

When the novel opens, readers immediately know that Bohjalian isn’t going to waste any time setting up the story –he dives right into the heavy, nitty gritty action that makes the story so riveting.

From the first pages, Bohjalian has readers tinkering from the end of their seats as he explores how brief moral lapses and bouts of violence can have astronomical effects on normal lives. In this well-paced novel, Bohjalian opens readers’ eyes to the horrors that are present and possible in our own back yards. He shows that human trafficking is not just “something that happens in Bangkok.”

Sex trafficking is not a pretty topic. In fact, the subjects of Bohjalian’s novels rarely are. In a recent interview with The San Diego Tribune, Bohjalian says “All of my books are about what I dread the most…So The Guest Room is just one more of those things I worry about.” Yet somehow, he tells his stories in a way that no matter how horrific or difficult to swallow, we keep turning the pages, hungry for more, hoping for a happy ending.

Bohjalian may not deliver on the happy ending, but he does give the story a satisfying ending. He tells the story that is there to tell, not concerned with easing our minds with neatly tied up and resolved conflicts. His stories are deeply rooted in reality which makes them simultaneously terrifying and just so good.

The Guest Room

Part of the beauty of Bohjalian’s story telling is that he doesn’t skimp out on the minor details, like a tub of Barbies collecting dust in the corner of a nine-year-0ld girl’s room. He gives everything in his stories meaning, nothing is there by accident or to fill up space.

It has been said that characters make a story. Without good characters, books would hardly be worth reading. Bohjalian takes that idea to the next level. Even his minor characters who show up but for a scene are clearly well thought out and planned. They are people with their own stories, not just supporting roles for this story.

He narrates from a few different perspectives, and all have a distinct voice.

Alexandra’s, one of the strippers from the party’s, back story is intricately interwoven with present events and gives readers more perspective. He includes even the details we would prefer to gloss over, showing how carefully he researched his topic. Yet the prose comes out effortless. A mark of a true master.

As an avid reader of Bohjalian’s work, I am always blown away by his ability to get into the head of characters so vastly different from himself such as Alexandra. In this novel, he does that twice when he explores how Melissa, Chapman’s daughter, copes with the events that occurred at her home while she was away. Her innocence shines through, yet we can see it being slowly whittled away as she learns more about the reality of the situation she has found herself in.

While the book speaks to the greater issue of human trafficking, what Bohjalian has done here is create a thrilling, modern story that will change the way we talk about marriage and sexuality. At its core, it’s about the frailty of marriage and some remarkable, strong young women.

The Guest Room is a novel that will surely keep readers furiously flipping pages all night. Bohjalian again proves himself to be a fearless master of his craft.


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