Bohjalian's 17th novel takes on sex trafficking
LINCOLN — In his latest novel, which hit bookstores this week, Lincoln writer Chris Bohjalian takes on the devastating impact of sex trafficking and examines how one moment of weakness can send a man’s well-ordered life spiraling out of control.
Bohjalian’s “The Guest Room” intertwines twin stories — that of Manhattan investment banker Richard Chapman and that of Alexandra, a beautiful young woman from Yerevan, Armenia. Forced since age 15 into a life of prostitution, the now 19-year-old Alexandra has been trafficked from Yerevan to Moscow to New York City so her underworld handlers can make the big bucks.
Tellingly, we don’t even learn her real name until 90 pages into the novel. “Alexandra,” it turns out, is a name dreamed up by her captor/abusers, who find her Armenian name, Nevart, “Not European enough. Not glamorous enough. Not seductive enough.”
“I could have told her,” says Nevart/Alexandra, referring to the thuggish madame who rechristens her, “that Nevart was the name for a beautiful, delicate rose, not some poor woman who was shot with her family by the Bolsheviks.”
But like most of Nevart’s true thoughts, these words go unspoken.
Nevart’s silencing is important to Bohjalian, as is giving her a voice. All other characters — Richard Chapman, his wife Kristin, and their daughter Melissa, along with a host of minor characters — are narrated in the third person. Only Nevart is an “I.” Only Nevart gets to tell her own story, entirely in her own words.
That distinction is important to Bohjalian and is a key part of the novel.
“She’s in the first person because often these girls and women are not given a voice. They don’t speak. People speak for them,” Bohjalian said in an interview with the Independent. “I thought, ‘If you’re going to do this, she’s the only one who gets her own voice.’ And I worked really hard to figure out what that voice is. I wanted it to be real, but I didn’t want it to be in any way degrading. She’s really smart, and I wanted her to be articulate.”
THE NOVEL’S GENESIS
The inspiration for “The Guest Room,” the best-selling Bohjalian’s 17th novel, came from a 2013 trip he took to Armenia, accompanied by his wife, Victoria Brewer, their daughter, Grace, then 19, and Grace’s 19-year-old friend, a young woman also of Armenian heritage.
Grace’s friend was going home a day early and Bohjalian arranged to meet her in the hotel lobby very early and get her to the airport.
As Bohjalian tells the story: “I got down to the lobby at about 10 after three because I didn’t want this young woman alone in the lobby in the middle of the night. And I witnessed a young woman, my daughter’s age or younger, who was clearly an escort, as she was paying off the bellman to go upstairs and do her work.
“We’ve all seen high-end escorts in hotels in America or in Europe,” Bohjalian continued, “but it really broke my heart to see someone this young in Armenia doing this. And I began to wonder if there was a novel in her story.”
And so “The Guest Room” began.
As Bohjalian researched prostitution in Armenia, he learned that, as elsewhere in the Caucasus region, there’s often a “razor thin line” between prostitution and human trafficking. He said the business exploded when the Berlin Wall fell, as many former Soviet satellites found their economies in shambles.
Bohjalian is a novelist drawn repeatedly to the kinds of traumatic events that cleave a person’s life in two: surviving a brutal assault, piloting a plane that crashes into Lake Champlain and kills all but a handful of crew and passengers, midwifing a home birth that goes tragically awry. He’s likewise drawn to historical events of great trauma: the Armenian genocide during World War I, refugees on multiple sides fleeing the carnage of World War II, the aftermath of nuclear disaster. And he’s never been one to shy away from complex social issues: transsexual identity, cross-racial adoption. But alone among the novels displayed on his website, “The Guest Room” includes links and information about steps you can take to address a particular social evil.
Given that much of the novel is, necessarily, about sex — sex for money, girls forced into sex to make money for other people — Bohjalian was especially careful to craft the novel so that the sex scenes are not titillating.
“I never wanted the sex in the book to be erotic. It was really important that it’s clear that hers is a life of violence and degradation,” he said. “And so I wanted it to be clear that this is really, really horrific stuff.”
But, as Bohjalian himself is quick to point out, “The Guest Room” is a novel, not a social tract.
“I’m a novelist,” he said. “I make stuff up. What matters to me most are characters that you really care about and a story that keeps you turning the pages. ‘The Guest Room,’ in my opinion, is a novel of suspense. It’s a literary thriller about a marriage in crisis, two remarkable women and that one moment you wish more than anything you could take back.”
And indeed, like so many of Bohjalian’s 16 other novels, “The Guest Room” is a real page turner. And the reader is more than likely to stay up half the night zooming forward to see how it all works out for Richard and his family, and for Nevart.
The novel equally investigates Nevart’s journey through the hell of sexual slavery, as it does Richard’s own descent into purgatory as one dubious choice makes his life a nightmare. That choice — agreeing to host a seemingly harmless bachelor party and then accompanying Nevart/Alexandra into the titular “guest room” of his Westchester County home — sets the novel in motion.
With characteristic skill, Bohjalian interweaves Richard’s story with his wife’s, his daughter’s, and Nevart’s. And for many events the novel uses something of a “Rashoman” format, as we continually see the same event reflected though the prisms of different characters’ experience.
Unlike so many of Bohjalian’s novels, this one is not set in the Green Mountain State.
“I love to write about Vermont; living here is a great gift,” said Bohjalian, “and I think it’s important that sometimes my books aren’t set here. Everything about ‘The Guest Room’ felt outside of Vermont. To me, when I was thinking about the book, I was always envisioning Moscow, Yerevan and New York City.”
And indeed, the action of the novel moves seamlessly back and forth between those three locales, and Richard’s upscale home just north of Manhattan in Bronxville, N.Y. Bohjalian remarks that he could have chosen any of a number of well-heeled Manhattan commuter towns, but chose Bronxville because it’s where he grew up, the son of an advertising executive.
“I lived in Bronxville in high school, so I knew that topography,” he said. “My father was Don Draper with less hair and no adulterous liaisons.”
What’s next for Bohjalian? He’s well at work on his 18th novel, with the working title of “The Sleepwalker.” It is set back on familiar turf in Addison County and shares the “Bartlett” — also known as Lincoln — setting familiar to readers of “The Buffalo Soldier” and other Bohjalian novels. The story concerns a woman who suffers from a sleepwalking disorder, who one night just disappears. Bohjalian describes “The Sleepwalker” as a suspense novel. It’s due to come out in 2017.
First, though, he’s off on his “‘Guest Room’ Rock ’n’ Roll Book Tour,” with stops in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, California, Colorado — and yes, Vermont — and many, many places in between.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at email@example.com.
Editor's note: To read more about Chris Bohjalian's engagements to gain wider recognition of the Armenian genocide during World War I see "Bohjalian speaks out during centennial of Armenian genocide."