I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by stories that depict a slippery slope towards disaster. Tales where the first mistake is such a plausibly minor one that we can all see ourselves making the same wrong turn—a wrong turn that could be, should be, of minimal consequence from which we could completely recover, but instead turns into a life-altering chain of events so profound that it divides a life into segments of before and after.
The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is just such a tale, where a fairly minor and actually well-intentioned (remember where we have been told that road leads) lapse of judgement spirals into disastrous and far-reaching consequences for all involved.
In this, his 18th book, Bohjalian, known for exploring contemporary and controversial issues, confronts the topic of human trafficking and brings it right into the living room of upper-middle class suburbia, a setting so familiar that we are forced to consider it in the context of our own neighborhoods rather than as an unfortunate problem far, far away from our safe and comfortable lives.
Bohjalian has a way of portraying the complex layers and gritty ugliness of a situation in a way that grabs readers and doesn’t let us turn our heads and pretend it isn’t so.
His character development is so real that not only do we feel empathy, but furthermore we feel a connection with each character, despite how different their life might be form ours. Each one, even with all their dissimilarities, makes the reader stop and think “but for … that could be me.” Beyond the cliché of becoming riveted to an impending train wreck, this story draws the reader in as if we are watching the wreck of the train we might have been on ourselves, had life had shifted ever so slightly to the left or to the right.
What starts as a thoughtless shake-our-heads what-were-they-thinking boys-will-be-boys night of bachelor party debauchery turns into tragic intersections of lives so diverse that the surface action—which is in itself culminates in a great story—is usurped by the exploration of deeper issues of commitment, compassion, culpability, shame and forgiveness. Woven into the fabric of criminal suspense, Bohjalian plunges us deep into the heart of moral conundrums, both on the micro and macro levels, forcing us to confront the tangled complexities in a way that leaves us thinking about the issues long after we have turned the last page.