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Book Review: ‘”The Girl in the Box'” by author Sheila Dalton

Caitlin Shaughnessy, a Canadian journalist, discovers that Inez, a traumatized young Mayan woman originally from Guatemala, has killed Caitlin’s psychoanalyst partner, Dr. Jerry Simpson. Simpson brought the girl, who may be autistic, back to Canada as an act of mercy and to attempt to treat her obvious trauma. Caitlin desperately needs to find out why this terrible incident occurred so she can find the strength to forgive and move on with her life.  Inez, whose sense of wonder and innocence touches all who meet her, becomes a focal point for many of the Canadians who encounter her. As Caitlin struggles to uncover the truth about Inez’s relationship with Jerry, Inez struggles to break free of the projections of others. Each must confront her own anger and despair. The doctors in the north have an iciness that matches their surroundings, a kind of clinical armour that Caitlin must penetrate if she is to reach Inez.  The Girl in the Box is a psychological drama of the highest order and a gripping tale of intrigue and passion. (from Goodreads)

A number of months ago, I came across the unfamiliar term “literary fiction”. What is Literary Fiction? There are various definitions and opinions, but the one that stood out for me is that with Literary Fiction “what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them”. (Nathan Bransford) (“ What Makes Literary Fiction Literary ”)

For me, “The Girl in the Box” is Literary Fiction. In the character of Caitlin Shaughnessy, as much as we think we know her thoughts, desires, and motivations, as the novel evolves so do these aspects of Caitlin’s personality. And in some ways, without even knowing it, the reader seeks that evolution, and the author delivers.

The human conditions existing in Guatemala are among the subjects tackled by Sheila Dalton. This book speaks to human relationships of love, friendship, trust, jealousy, pain, suffering, and enlightenment. The characters are complex and the plot line is intricate and deftly woven by the author.

The storyline is not linear, but rather, it is told from various characters’ perspective, back and forth over a time span of approximately six months. This means the reader must stay focused on who is speaking and telling the tale. I truly enjoy novels written in this style – it keeps me interested in ‘who will speak next’! If the reader is one who enjoys fiction with a chronological plot line, this book may be a challenge.

While not technically highlighted as a mystery novel, there were many elements of mystery throughout this novel. I found the most intriguing mysteries were between the characters, how relationships developed, changed, grew, and in some cases, deteriorated.

“The Girl in the Box” caught my attention before I finished the first page. And it still had my attention on the last page. I will qualify that by saying that, in the first part of the second half of the book I found the story started to slow down, and I found it a little tougher reading. There was a lot of descriptive narrative, and a lot of introspection by the character of Caitlin Shaughnessy. I found it slowed the pace of the novel, and I resisted the urge to skip a few pages. (I was really much too afraid I would miss something good!)

Lake Atitlan (Click to Enlarge)

There was an added bonus to reading this book, and that was: Education. It is very clear that Sheila Dalton has an impressive knowledge of Guatemala, and the various political and social conflicts that have plagued that region for many years. It is also eye-opening to know that a number of these conflicts are current or recent history in nature. These also incorporate international issues that can affect everyday people, like you and I.

The murder victim’s life story included professional jealousies that exist specifically in the mental health profession, and generally within many professions today – and yesterday! It forces all of us to think twice about how we treat our co-workers on any level.

Although not planned this way, my review is coinciding with Mental Health Awareness in Canada. The challenge is to remove the stigma of mental health illness that continues to exist. While the character of Inez is at an extreme end of a spectrum, the way other characters react to her, and around her, is reminiscent of how mental health is often both overlooked and ignored. This is, as is probably clear, often detrimental to both the individual, and those around them

As a psychological drama, “The Girl in the Box” pulls the reader deeply into the lives of the characters. As a work of Literary Fiction, the motivations of the characters become intriguing puzzles. As a mystery, the ending brings everything together in one place, ties all the connections together.

To say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel sounds trite given the nature of the book. But, it is true! I thoroughly enjoyed this novel!!   

I surprised myself by my depth of involvement with the characters. The book became more about the characters, than about solving the murder mystery. I grew in my knowledge of some international issues. And the ending was one I accepted on an emotional level.

What more could I ask for?

Labrador Highway in Winter (photo: Jamie Pye)

In keeping with the theme of my blog, I ask myself “Where is the Joy?” in this book, in this review. Joy is an emotion we can choose. For me, the Joy in this book is found in the small shared moments of the characters with each other.

So very real.

Patricia

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