A friend and I have a tradition: I read a book, I enjoy said book, I recommend said book to her, she expresses interest in borrowing/reading it, I say “Ohhh, but there’s some rape.”
You’d be surprised how often this comes up. I’d never given much thought to my propensity for rape scenes, but considering the number of times I’ve had to give this disclaimer to my friend (who is many months pregnant and therefore nauseated by literary or cinematic displays of extreme violence), I’m beginning to wonder if I have a problem.
Which brings me to Box 21. International mystery in the same vein as Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Check. Strong female protagonist up against chauvinistic male authority figures? Check. Well-developed story with gripping narrative and enjoyable twists? Check. Violent rape? Ah yes, check.
I can’t remember why I originally bought Box 21, but as I left for the shore a few weeks ago it seemed a natural choice for beach reading (high-octane thriller, less than 400 pages, paperback). This was the kind of book I had no problem rolling out of bed at 8 a.m. to enjoy on the hotel balcony, while my lethargic vacation-mates dug their faces deeper into their pillows until it was tanning time.
The novel revolves around Lydia Grajaukas, who was lured by the promise of employment and freedom onto a Sweden-bound boat, where her caretaker promptly revealed himself to be a pimp. He rapes, beats and essentially enslaves Lydia and another young woman; the book opens when the two have been living out their nightmare for several years, “servicing” a dozen men a day from a padlocked apartment and dreaming of escape. One afternoon, the police are called over a disturbance at the flat and come upon Lydia beaten within an inch of her life. The rest of the book? What happens when she decides to seek revenge against those who facilitated her kidnapping. And I won’t say anything else.
Box 21 reminded me a lot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—in addition to a similar plotline (Lisbeth Salander was equally preoccupied with getting revenge on her rapist), it’s set in Sweden and therefore full of proper nouns that seem overly burdened by consonants. It’s also a bleak read, populated with characters whose understanding of right and wrong is repeatedly tested. The key difference between Box 21 and Dragon Tattoo is pace: the former is a short read and serves up details only where they enhance the story; the latter is rather long and (in my opinion) would have benefitted from a slightly harsher edit.
In any case, the Eastern European sex trade is a central focus of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, so it’s appropriate that such a similar novel focuses almost exclusively on the same. But Box 21 is more nuanced that Stieg Larrsson ever managed, and the ending alone is worth the read.
I suppose by starting off this post with rape, I may have alienated a few potential readers. But it’s hard to write about a book centered on involuntary prostitutes without at least hinting at the fact that they’re both abused, particularly when said abuse is the impetus for their eventual revenge.
Box 21 may not be the best thing I’ve ever read (a status reserved only for Us Weekly and Sarah Palin on Twitter) but it’s compelling. And well worth packing for your next vacation.
TITLE: Box 21
AUTHOR: Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
PAGES: 393 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
FIRST LINE: “Extract from an accident & emergency primary assessment, Söder Hospital, Stockholm”