Friday, August 3, 2012

The Girl in the Box by Sheila Dalton

This novel was a first for me; the author, Sheila Dalton, contacted me directly to let me know she liked my blog, and offering to send me a copy of her book to review. Obviously I said yes, and I was excited that actual authors were reading!

The Girl in the Box is pretty heavy. It reads quickly and in a way it's kind of a whodunnit, but there are a lot of deep issues touched explored, and it's not a book that will leave you with a spring in your step.

The story - told in a mix of flashbacks and from a few different viewpoints - follows a psychotherapist named Jerry who is travelling in Guatemala and encounters a Mayan couple who beg him to help their child. Her name is Inez, and she is a non-verbal, possibly autistic and almost certainly traumatised teenager who is kept locked up in a small shed. Jerry takes Inez back to Canada with him, where he and his partner Caitlin and live-in nurse Margaret start to try to rehabilitate her.

Their efforts are pretty seriously complicated when Inez kills Jerry. The book is really about Caitlin coming to terms with what was going on, and trying to figure out what actually happened that would make the normally gentle Inez lash out. Inez is sent to a facility for folks found not guilt by reason of insanity, and Caitlin has to get through her own paranoia and suspicions in order to figure out how to help Inez.

It's complicated. The story is not like anything I've ever read, and it's certainly an interesting exploration of the challenges of dealing with violent death. There were issues that I wish were dealt with further, like the actual impact of taking a traumatized indigenous person out of their home and bringing them to Canada; the feminist implications of Inez's brutal rape(s?) at the hands of soldiers; really all the racial/cultural problems that would be front and centre if this really happened.

I liked it though. It's rare to read a book where four of the six main characters are women, and it's not "chick lit" or fluffy in any way. Sad but true. I found Caitlin especially to be very well-drawn and complex, and I was glad that Jerry was not portrayed as some kind of sexless saint. I felt that Inez could have had a little less of that "exotic/ethereal beauty" quality that is kind of insulting in this context to both people of colour and autistic people. But overall the characters were compelling and were really what kept me reading.

One major disappointment for me was the sideswipes the author took at the feminist movement through Caitlin. There is no exploration at all about the overt feminist implications of anything that happens, and then the author manages to slip in a couple really juvenile feminist stereotypes to insult. There is actually, literally a woman at Inez's trial with a lesbian haircut and a "fish needs a bicycle" t-shirt talking about how all men are rapists. I am a feminist and not averse to criticism - we all know the movement has some pretty big faults - but that shit is just sloppy. It took me right out of the story, and it's just stupid.

Besides that, it was a pretty good read and one I would probably recommend, although not to everyone, as it is heavy, like I said. Toronto is unfortunately not heavily featured at all - it really could be set in any Canadian city - but that's how it goes with books that are less about setting and more about feelings.

Three CN Towers out of five.


  1. Thanks for reviewing my book. I really appreciate it, and your gut reactions are great.
    Btw, I'm a feminist, have been from an early age. Caitlin was a bit of a jerk in some ways, but she was meant to be reacting to the extremists who were around in the 80's, and didn't do the movement much good. But she was still a bit of a jerk!
    Sheila Dalton

  2. Interesting review. I had the pleasure of reading The Girl in the Box a while ago and loved it. it's more of a why dunnit than a who dunnit and that's what makes it unique. We already know who the murderer is but what makes this book so interesting is our journey with Caitlin to find out why the murder was committed.

    I thought the characters were very vivid and well fleshed out. The author finds a way to give depth even to the non-verbal Inez. Which I cannot imagine would be an easy feat.

    I disagree about the feminist jabs. I didn't get that vibe at all, but to each his or her own. :)

  3. I agree with Jeanne. I spotted no feminist jabs, but I appreciate the fact that to be taken seriously as a reviewer you had to stretch to find things in the book to criticize. I do feel the reviewer gave away far too much of the plot, but that's usually my complaint with reviewers. This book is a terrific read, the imagery is amazing, and the twists and turns of the story were unexpected. I also had real feelings for the female characters in the book, and found that the author did an excellent job handling difficult issues in a way that was not ponderous. Yes the book is not a James Bond thriller, but its "darkness" in no way makes it less entertaining to the discerning reader.

    1. Hi, Celia
      I'm so glad you liked my book! Thank you so much for your support.
      I found the review very thoughtful and detailed, and I appreciate that. I think in some cases the characters' views are being taken as my own, but that happens a lot and is sort of part of the territory.

  4. "I appreciate the fact that to be taken seriously as a reviewer you had to stretch to find things in the book to criticize."

    No, I didn't. My review is an honest reaction to the book.

    1. You did a great job, and I'm truly grateful! Jerry and Caitlin and a lot of the other characters are projecting their views onto Inez. Because she is a "blank slate" in some ways, people tended to misinterpret her. That's what all the "exotic beauty" stuff was about.
      I like your review.