I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex, Summer Brenner, PM Press
Summer Brenner enters the dark underworld of the sex slave trade in this fictional account of a young Russian woman’s attempt to escape from bondage as she is transported across a stretch of highway, the I-5 of the title. From the first page, Brenner inundates the reader with the sensory experiences of Anya, an illegal immigrant from Russia who has been lured to the United States with the promise of jobs and money, but who finds herself forced to perform sexual favors to pay off an undisclosed debt to her captors for her transport and upkeep. Descriptions of the enclosed life that Anya leads as well as the control exerted over her least decisions and movements help to portray the hopelessness of her life as overtly as the descriptions of the sexual escapades that she is supposed to perform with agility and acquiescence in order to earn her freedom do. Her character is intriguing because she is able to objectively present the atrocious scenarios of her life interspersed with the hints and shades of past horrors of a different order left behind in Russia.
As Anya’s world is explored through a series of mishaps that occur along the I-5, the reader slowly learns the pervading knowledge that Anya carries within herself: she will never be able to escape as the outside world is as dangerous and untrustworthy as her own secret world as a sex slave. The only sex scene in the novel ironically occurs not when Anya is “working,” but after a car accident that leads her and her captor to a nearby prison facility for medical attention. The scene illustrates that even the law as represented by the prison sergeant is complicit in the abuse of Anya, if the opportunity presents itself. As Anya kneels before his unzipped pants with her breasts exposed, the scene encompasses the violent mindset that allows these women to be treated as objects: “The sergeant observes from above. It is only two feet, but it feels like a great height. A spectacular aerial view over an inviolable law. Not his law but nature’s: women are born to satisfy men” (80).
Anya, who has been working for four years at this point in the story, is surprisingly strong willed and spirited in comparison to other girls such as her friend Cerise, who is presented as an example of a woman completely broken by her circumstances. Fear of being deported and sent back to a country where her brother was picked up and murdered without cause by the authorities keeps Anya imprisoned as much as the violence does that she will endure if she does not comply. Anya truly believes in her ability to pay her debt and earn her freedom, and the turning point in the novel is her dawning realization that this promise that she has clung to so fervently is actually a lie. Nothing else truly penetrates the thick shell that Anya has created to preserve her inner self as much as the hint that she may never be free.
Brenner begins her tale with a mysterious sound that Anya hears repeatedly while locked in her hotel room for days on end, and towards the end of the novel, the source of the sound is revealed to be the tones of the traffic light signaling for the blind. “She laughs sadly. ‘I fantasized it was a bird.’ Anya thinks she should have felt sorry for the bird, but instead she hated it. Now that she knows it’s for the blind, she hates it still. She wonders if she is a bad person. She doesn’t think she was born bad, but life has turned her. She has even lost pity for the blind” (172). Symbolically, Anya is blinded by the lies of her captors, and ultimately her survival depends on her ability to respond quickly relying on whatever senses she has left at her disposal. Brenner braves a subject matter that is not easy to embrace, and she manages to create a character that is neither cliché nor uninspiring. I-5 moves at a clipped pace towards its conclusion, and the reader is wholly invested in finding out how Anya finally resolves her life.
Megan Burns holds a MFA from Naropa University and edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter (solidquarter.blogspot.com). She has been most recently published in Callaloo, Constance Magazine, and YAWP Journal as well as online at horseless press, shampoo, trope_5, Exquisite Corpse and BigCityLit. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink.