Book World: Review of 'Box 21' by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström
By Anders Roslund and
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 393 pp. $26
At the start of this gripping Swedish novel, two 17-year-old Lithuanian girls, Lydia and Alena, fall into an insidious but widely practiced trap: They agree to journey to Stockholm to accept what they're told are high-paying jobs. Instead, they are kidnapped, repeatedly raped and beaten, imprisoned and forced into prostitution. An early scene shows Lydia, after three years of captivity, greeting a customer who demands his weekly ritual of sadistic sex. She submits -- she even smiles -- because to do otherwise is to be beaten once again. Required to serve 12 customers each day, she survives because "she was not there, she had absented herself. Here she was just a face with no body." She imagines herself elsewhere, singing a song she learned as a child.
In recent years, a good deal of media attention has been focused on sex slavery, and international human-rights organizations have condemned the practice, but it has rarely been more graphically portrayed than in this novel. The Swedish brothel-keepers pay the kidnappers "three thousand euros [$4,500] for every teenage girl shipped from east to west." The customers pay 500 kronor, about $70, for sex, which means that each woman brings in about $840 a day, or $25,000 a month. The painful question the reader asks, as the novel begins, is whether Lydia and Alena can possibly escape their hellish fate.
In fact, they do escape, whereupon the story takes a number of surprising twists. Alena wants only to return home to Lithuania, but Lydia is obsessed with taking revenge on the Swedish man she holds most responsible for their ordeal. Although badly beaten, she carries out an elaborate scheme that involves taking hostages and using them to lure her enemy into a trap. We readers don't know exactly how to respond as the young victim is reborn as a terrorist, but it's an exciting sequence, even if rather improbable. To Lydia, her actions have a simple logic: "When someone has been kicked around for long enough, there comes a time when she has to kick back."
The story carries us into Stockholm's dark underbelly, where we meet, among others, a professional hit man and a heroin addict he's been hired to kill. But mostly we get to know the veteran detective Ewert Grens, for this is his story as much as it is Lydia's. Grens is first seen visiting an institutionalized woman who was his lover before she was attacked by a criminal and left in a coma. He's been celibate since, visiting her weekly and otherwise dedicating himself to his work. His only other pleasure comes in playing tapes of the popular Swedish singer Siw Malmkvist and imagining that he is dancing with her and holding her close.
Grens and other officials are well aware of the sex slavery in Stockholm and frustrated by their inability to do much about it because the crimes take place behind locked doors, the women are so easily obtained and the brothel-keepers often buy police protection. A Lithuanian diplomat tells Grens: "Several thousand young women. . . . From Eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of lives! That was the extent of it, the illegal sex trade with the West. Bought and sold as we speak. More and more. Our girls! Our women!" The diplomat continues: "In my country, in Lithuania, trading in narcotics, say, is a serious crime. Heavy sentences are passed. Long, harsh punishments are meted out. But trading in people, in young women, that's risk-free. In Lithuania, pimps are hardly ever punished. No one is sentenced; no one gets a spell in prison." Before the novel ends, Grens will suffer a crisis of conscience that arises from secrets he learns about the sex trade.
"Box 21" (the title refers to a storage locker where Lydia hides valuables) is no sermon, but the authors make their outrage clear. Theirs is an unusual partnership. Roslund is a television newsman, and Hellström is an ex-criminal who now works with young offenders. They've written five books together. This one was a bestseller in Europe, as was another recent Swedish thriller, Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"; the publisher no doubt hopes that "Box 21" can equal that novel's great success in this country.
Both are fine novels, but they're quite different. There's an elegance to "Dragon Tattoo" that concerns not so much a crime as a mystery: Was a long-missing girl dead, or had she run away? "Box 21" is a grittier novel and contains ugly scenes of forced sex. "Tattoo" managed a happy ending; this one ends mostly in despair. But if the nasty realities of the sex trade don't scare you off, "Box 21" is a harsh but vivid reminder of just how brutal men can be.
Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.