Book Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
Bestselling author Chris Bohjalian channels a 16-year-old girl in his newest novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Narrated by Emily Shephard, the book is set in post-disaster Vermont. A nuclear power plant has exploded in the northeast sector of the state, leaving thousands homeless, a big swath of land (the Exclusion Zone) contaminated and uninhabitable, and resulting in 19 deaths — including the deaths of Emily’s parents. Even worse, Emily’s father was an engineer at the plant, and the common belief is that he was drunk on the day of the disaster. Not only is Emily left on her own, but she’s constantly barraged by the scathing comments of strangers about how Bill Shephard is to blame for it all, so Emily runs away and seeks anonymity in the closest city, Burlington.
There, Emily drifts from teen shelter to the streets, landing for a while in the miserable apartment of Poacher, who supplies her with painkillers and pimps her out to earn her keep, when he’s not sending her out with other members of the posse to steal various and sundry items. Emily operates under an assumed name, spends her time mostly high, cuts herself in secret, and picks up truckers by the interstate for a quick buck, until she meets 9-year-old Cameron, a runaway from a string of bad foster homes, and decides to protect Cameron at all costs.
Emily narrates her tale from some time after the events, and her narration jumps around quite a bit in time. We get snapshots of her pre-disaster life, living with unstable parents who drink too much, running a bit wild, constantly underachieving in school. Emily describes herself as having poor decision-making skills and impulse-control, and really, even before the explosion, her life was heading downhill. Emily’s one true passion is writing. She keeps journals and is an aspiring poet, and admires no one more than Emily Dickinson. If the plant hadn’t melted down, would Emily have gotten her act together? Possibly… but we’ll never know.
Instead, Emily sheds her innocence quickly in the six weeks from nuclear meltdown to her loss of virginity in her first paid sexual encounter. Emily is on her own, on the streets, with no one to look out for her — and because of her fear of admitting who she really is, she’s cut off from any possible aid from official relief agencies.
The narration of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one long spiral downward. The time jumps become jumbled, and while the intended effect might have been a stream-of-conciousness flow, it’s often more like listening to someone ramble. Emily’s inner turmoil and dire straits are immediately apparent, and the impact of the disaster is clear and awful.
Yet somehow, I never truly felt an emotional connection to Emily. Her storytelling style is distant — she’s recounting events from after the fact, and we don’t really find out why or what’s going on in this “after” until quite late in the story. Everything feels abrupt: We hear about an incident at Poacher’s, and only later get more information about how she ended up there. We hear about taking care of Cameron, but don’t get the full picture of why or how this came about until further into the book. The jumbled events leave little to become involved with, as the loose narrative structure never really allows momentum or suspense to build.
My other issue with this book is that Emily’s voice fades in and out quite a bit. I could never quite put out of my mind that this is a grown man’s version of what a teenage girl might sound like, and to my ears, anyway, the language was just a tiny bit off somehow, the slang and expressions lacking the ring of authenticity to convince me that this was really a 16-year-old speaking to me.
On the other hand, there is quite a bit here that packs a punch. The bare bones of the disaster itself are disturbing, and the post-disaster landscape and the suffering of the survivors is bleak indeed.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is harsh and sad and frightening. This isn’t some far-distant post-apocalyptic American nightmare: this is today, here, now. It’s a scenario that’s scarily possible — a what-if imagining that’s not at all difficult to envision. Emily is a mess, and rightly so. She makes some terrible decisions, but this isn’t a situation that anyone could possibly be prepared for.
While the writing style and organization of the book didn’t always work for me, I still couldn’t look away or stop reading. Whether or not I easily bought into Emily as a person, I had no problem picturing the nightmare of a nuclear disaster happening in an oblivious America. Don’t read this book expecting sunshine and happy endings; the sadness and despair will stick with you long after you close the covers.
Title: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publication date: July 8, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Doubleday via NetGalley