Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands: Book review

Cover Art for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalin

SILVER SPRING, Md, July 4, 2014 – After two back-to-back historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light In the Ruins), Chris Bohjalian returns to contemporary New England and a story that feels like it could be ripped out of the headlines.

Emily Shepard is a normal 16 year-old girl. She has a dog, a learner’s permit and a cell phone. She goes to school, occasionally gets into trouble, and loves Emily Dickinson. She’s a normal 16 year-old, that is, until the nuclear reactor at the power plant in her hometown melts down. Then she becomes an orphan with an alias and a cutting habit hiding from social services among the homeless on the streets of Burlington, Vermont.

We meet Emily the day of the meltdown when she and the rest of her school are hurriedly loaded onto buses and whisked away, out of range of the radiation. Emily’s parents work at the Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant. She spends the next several hours alternating between trying to get in touch with her parents and listening to news reports that she knows to be true, but does not want to believe.

When a teacher finally starts to break the news that her parents have died in the explosion at the plant, Emily takes off. Hearing all the negative reports about her parents and encountering negative responses to the fact she was Bill Shepard’s daughter, Emily tries to hide in plain sight. She leaves behind everyone trying to help her and becomes Abby Bliss, teenage runaway from Briarcliff, New York.

Over the course of the novel, Emily struggles with the reality that her parents are being blamed for the catastrophe that has changed the environment and economy of her state and has caused thousands of people to lose everything inside the radioactive Exclusion Zone around the remnants plant. She struggles to become a new person and an adult, going as far as pseudo-adopting a 9 year-old runaway boy.

She makes her way through life in a drug house and life on the streets. But just as things start to look like they are turning around and she has a chance of creating a stable life with her new identity, things crash down. Thinking she is trapped, Emily returns to her home, sneaking into the Exclusion Zone with the full knowledge that the radiation will eventually kill her.

Bohjalian’s first person narrator is captivating. He hits a chord with his readers in the comfortable conversational tone of his prose, fully allowing the voice of a well educated teenage girl to guide the reader through the highs and lows of a young person who has lost everything and thinks the world blames her for the faults of her parents.

One part confessional and one part therapy journal, Emily doesn’t hold anything back. She provides the gritty details of life on the street at the same time as talking about her parents’ drinking and her own high school partying. While the novel is divided into two sections, designed as a conceit of the narrator to give some structure to the events of her life, the actual narrative jumps around in time and place. However, while this structure could lead to confusion, Bohjalian maintains control. The jumps are connected in relevance and act as personal anecdotes that give insight into Emily’s mind and further the feel of a teenager trying to journal her life’s experiences in retrospect.

Overall, readers will enjoy this, the 16th novel by Bohjalian. His regular readers will find the same masterful storytelling they have come to expect, and the realistic and captivating narrator may attract a new audience just graduating from the ranks of teen fiction.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (ISBN: 9780804194440)by Chris Bohjalian is scheduled for release by Doubleday on July 8, 2014. It will be available as a hardcover and ebook.

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