Book Review: The Girl in the Box

Psychoanalyst Dr. Jerry Simpson is horrified to discover the mute Mayan teenager chained to a large wooden box in the jungles of Guatemala. Later, he would regret meeting the girl, her parents and the local doctor who suggested there was something he could do “if he was willing.”

Jerry decides to rescue the feral Inez and bring her back to his home in Toronto. He hires a live-in nurse who specializes in autistics and arranges for one of his colleagues to see Inez on a regular basis. His partner and journalist, Caitlin Shaughnessey welcomes Inez into their lives and helps with her care. Everyone feels for this “defenceless, traumatized, wounded innocent” and delights in her occasional bursts of joy and radiance.

Out of the blue, Inez kills Jerry.  She is found guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Labrador.

The story could easily end there, but Caitlin cannot let it go. She desperately needs to find out why this terrible incident occurred. Only then will she find the strength to forgive and move on with her life.

As the story flashes between 1983, the time of Jerry’s death, and 1971, Caitlin’s first encounter with Jerry in Guatemala, Caitlin rehashes every detail of their relationship and Jerry’s efforts to save Inez.  At times, she questions the purity of Jerry’s motives and actions, terrified she will discover he was a sexual predator. When she visits Inez in Labrador, she must deal with her own “moral turbulence.” While Caitlin understands that Inez cannot control her rages, she wishes that Inez had never come into their lives.  Caitlin also re-examines her own feelings about the mother who gave her up for adoption and her brother’s untimely death.

A few of the chapters are told from Jerry’s perspective. We learn more details about the unorthodox methods used to treat this damaged beauty and the conflicted feelings Jerry has toward Inez and his analysands. While he was an outstanding analyst, he had his own issues with his parents and his practice.

One of the subplots deals with the professional misconduct among the psychoanalysts. I was shocked by Jerry’s description of one colleague: “Whitfield’s style was verging on insane. He insulted patients routinely—at least, the ones he deemed arrogant—and often didn’t show up for appointments, offering no explanation. He’d even heard that Whitfield provoked arguments in session then blamed the patient for being aggressive.”

Newmarket based author Sheila Dalton has a wonderful eye for detail and a gift for providing the reader with a strong sense of place. The storyline moves between Toronto, Guatemala and Labrador.

Having travelled extensively in Central America, Dalton was inspired by her love of Guatemala and its Mayan people. I could feel the oppressive heat of the jungle as Jerry trudged through the steep slopes that led to Inez’ home, but also understand how much he loved Guatemala on days when he discovered “the sun tap-dancing in the palms and spinning webs in the hibiscus bushes.”

Neither Inez nor Caitlin felt such ambivalence in Labrador. “Great Northern Psychiatric was supposed to be a place where they mended souls, but there wasn’t an ounce of warmth anywhere, not in the climate, the architecture of the setting…The main building was huge and white, like an outcrop of ice.”

I could only shudder at the following description of Jerry jumping into Lake Ontario on a cool spring evening: “The mist was a tangle of cobwebby shrouds and the water, ice-cold. Soon, his legs were anchors rather than propellers thrusting him forward. He gasped and floundered on, craning his head, searching in vain for another glimpse of whatever creature was thrashing, along with him, in the frigid lake.”

Sheila Dalton spins a thought-provoking tale of abuse, survival, redemption and the need for forgiveness.  The book is well-written, with a solid storyline and enough subplots and plot twisters to test a gamut of emotions and leave remarkable memories.


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