Sunday, August 9, 2015

When the object of your charity turns against you - review of Sheila Dalton's psycho-cultural thriller "The Girl In the Box"

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Sheila Dalton's recent nautical/historical adventure Stolen in which she explores a string of common though underreported nightmares such as losing one's parents in a violent invasion. So I was not surprised to discover that one of her earlier novels The Girl in the Box also explores common phobias that many people are too ashamed to admit.

What if the object of your charity turns against you? That question passes through the mind of anyone who contemplating adoption or fostering of an older child. Yet it's a taboo for any do-gooder to ask that question openly.  Prospective foster parents are ashamed to vocalize their fears.  From the point of view of self-preservation, it's a perfectly legitimate question to ask, especially since there have been documented cases of violence.  "Who is that person I'm bringing into my home? Am I gaining a friend or an enemy?" and yet, regardless of whether we follow any religious dogma or secular humanist ethos, we are taught not to be boastful while performing acts of charity.  No, we're supposed to be deliberately humble, lest we exalt ourselves above those whom we are trying to help. 

Welcome into the world of Jerry and Caitlin, an unwed, childless, golden Canadian couple with over a decade of international travel, professional success and great sex. Jerry is a psychologist, always one step ahead of his colleagues, and Caitlin is a journalist. They view the events around them from their respective professional pedestals.  Their hedonistic (I don't hesitate to use that word) yuppy paradise is shaken when the arrival of Inez, a Guatemalan peasant girl Jerry had found during his last trip to South America. Having lived through genocide, sexual abuse and isolation, Inez, who had always had problems communicating with the outside world, retreats deeper into her shell. Initially supportive of Jerry's chivalrous urge to bring Inez into the US and ensure proper medical and psychological treatment, but eventually she voices certain doubts about the safety of having a young girl in Jerry's house and Jerry's altruistic fatherly feelings towards her.  What is that charming disturbed creature capable of?  And what if Jerry motivated by something other than duty as a doctor?

The novel is written as episodic dual narrative, a format that has become more popular in the past decade. The same events are told from the point of view of Jerry and Caitlin.  Jerry's parts are narrated in third person, and Caitlin's account is written in first person. The two points of view compete with each other and complement each other at the same time - as real life lovers would. 

I am thankful to the author for highlighting the countless political and socio-economic conflicts in Latin America.  I find that many people who have not studied the history of Latin American countries hold onto this naive myth that there is a sense of "Latin pride" and some sort of collective ethnic solidarity.  In reality, Latin American society is extremely polarized and stratified.  One of the doctors in the novel comments on being "of pure European extraction".  Even though he treats patients of Mayan descent, he is still very conscious of the racial differences between himself and them.  He's actually not afraid of saying, "Yes, I'm superior to them, and they are lucky to have access to my services." It's the very thing that Jerry, who positions himself as an enlightened liberal humanist, would not allow himself to say, yet a Guatemalan citizen has no qualms about vocalizing his sentiments.

The novel is set in 1980s. Psychiatry and psychoanalysis have made some tremendous strides in the past three decades. Conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and autism are popularized and advocated for.  In 1980s, the same conditions were still somewhat of a mystery, even to the members of the medical community, let alone pedestrian individuals. No wonder there is so much speculation about the nature of Inez’ affliction.  There are several conversations around the girl’s condition, and not all of them are sensitive or politically correct. I imagine that when doctors talk to each other, they are less delicate and choosy with words than when they talk to the patient directly.

I am not saying this is necessarily a flaw, and it's totally possible that another reader will feel differently, but the fact that Inez is described as this ethereal beauty, this Mayan deity with just the right mixture of sensuality and innocence, brought me very close to rolling my eyes.  The fact that men and women in her vicinity gush over her mystrical and magical aura is unsettling.  Now would the story be drastically different if she looked like a regular peasant girl with wide hips, short legs, coarse hair, broad nose and acne scars?  Would Jerry still feel the same chivalrous pangs? Same goes for Jerry's colleague/rival, who ends up being the villain in the story. He has a cold face with chiseled features, of course.  He looks like Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast".  Again, if he was a puny, bundy-legged, bald middle-aged man with a beer gut, would the story have a different vibe? 

Solid five stars. 


  1. Wonderful review, Marina. I love it. You have such a unique, straightforward, honest perspective. I think you deserve five stars yourself for the way you express yourself. So refreshing!
    Thank you.
    Sheila Dalton

  2. A great review, Marina. And congrats to Sheila. Its not often i find a review that pulls me in the direction of Amazon. May problem with reading is not that there are too many books, but that i dont have more than one set of eyes and one brain!