Special for the Armenian Weekly
The Guest Room
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, New York (Jan. 5, 2016), 336 pages
ISBN 978-0385538893; Hardcover, $25.95
New York Times best-selling author Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, The Guest Room, is a page-turner in every sense of the word. From its very first page to an emotionally charged surprise ending, Bohjalian’s fast-paced plot draws readers in and makes the book truly “hard to put down.”
The Guest Room tells the story of 19-year-old Anahit from Armenia—abducted as a teenager, held captive as a sex slave in Russia, and brought to New York City to be exploited. Much like his other books, which tackle social issues in the United States and abroad (transphobia, Tran-Sister Radio; domestic violence, Secrets of Eden; substance abuse, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands), The Guest Room explores the dark world of sex-trafficking, an issue not often discussed in the mainstream.
Bohjalian does a remarkable job in showing the horrors of sex-trafficking. He carefully avoids scenes of erotic sex and makes it clear that the behavior is violent, degrading, and ultimately a form of enslavement. Though at times too heartbreaking to read, Bohjalian’s descriptions of the brutality that is associated with sex slavery succeeds in emotionally moving the reader, as it quickly becomes hard not to empathize with Anahit.
While her story is perhaps the most captivating of all the characters, Bohjalian also tells the story of the Chapmans—Richard, his wife Kristin, and their nine-year-old daughter Melissa, whose internal life sometimes seems too mature for her age. Written in multiple points of view—with alternating chapters told by Anahit (whose name, upon being abducted, is changed to Alexandra) and the book’s other characters—Bohjalian provides an intimate look into each character, and gives readers the chance to better understand the multi-layered emotions they face.
From the beginning, it is impossible not to care about Anahit; her story of abduction, trafficking, and helplessness throughout makes it difficult not to feel for her. As the story progresses, though, Bohjalian also makes sure that readers are increasingly empathetic to the Chapmans—as well as all the other characters that make up the brilliantly connected plot—as it becomes challenging to ignore their emotions and back stories.
Bohjalian’s newest title is a self-admitted bookend to his critically acclaimed 2012 The Sandcastle Girls, a powerful piece that introduced and educated hundreds of thousands around the world on the suffering of the Armenian population in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. While in The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian gave voice to a voiceless generation of genocide victims and survivors, in The Guest Room, he introduces his readership to other aspects of the Armenian reality.
With detailed descriptions of the Armenian cities of Yerevan and Gyumri, Bohjalian transports his readers—many of whom perhaps only have a vague idea of this historic country—to modern-day Armenia. Throughout the book, he presents both the good and the bad, both the utter beauty and the ugly sides of the country. He, for instance, describes the radiance of Yerevan’s architecture and art, but also touches on the corruption that takes over when trying to build a democracy in the post-Soviet world.
Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the novel—which is not necessarily directly connected to the plot—is the vivid, almost chilling description of the destructive earthquake that ravaged Armenian cities in the wake of the crumbling of the Soviet Union. In a few pages, Bohjalian is able to give readers a first-hand look into the destruction that ensued in Gyumri during the earthquake, and how the consequences of the dreadful natural disaster continue to haunt Armenia today.
While the novel’s backdrop is a horrifying account of human trafficking, The Guest Room is very much a book that deals with a multitude of issues, such as blackmail, deceit, marital problems, and human compassion. While tackling these subjects head-on, Bohjalian also takes on the difficult task of introducing his readership to an unfamiliar country, and succeeds in his quest, which makes The Guest Room both a captivating and insightful read.