I am a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s novels – each has such unique plots and characters and no two are alike. I have read and enjoyed The Night Strangers, Midwives, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. So, it’s about time that I finally got to read his 2014 release, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. My husband gave it to me for Christmas last year! It was worth the wait, a compelling novel about an orphaned teen trying to survive after the disaster that took her parents.
Emily was a normal teen girl living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, going to school, hanging out with her best friend, and occasionally fighting with her parents. Then her world shattered. The local nuclear power plant, where both of her parents work, melted down. At first, Emily evacuates with the rest of her class to a college a safe distance away. When she hears talk, though, that perhaps her father was at fault (and perhaps he was drunk), Emily fears that she will be questioned. Overwhelmed, with her parents both dead at the disaster scene and the entire region closed down, Emily feels that she has no option but to run.
She heads to Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, where she hopes she can remain anonymous. She tries a teen shelter but soon worries when one of her fellow residents figures out who she is. Homeless and orphaned, Emily bounces from one bad situation to another. At one point, during the cold Vermont winter, she lives in an igloo made of frozen trash bags filled with leaves (and that’s one of her better situations). She finds a young boy named Cameron who is also alone and takes care of him, protecting him and feeding him as best as she can. Through all of this, Emily’s spirit perseveres, as she tries to emulate her favorite poet, Emily Dickenson.
The novel has an unusual narrative approach; it is written as Emily’s journals. As such, it jumps around a lot in time, sort of a stream of consciousness, as Emily tries to make sense of all that has happened to her. So, the novel opens with Emily talking about the trash bag igloo that helped her survive the winter, then flashes back to reminiscing about her childhood, then onto the nuclear meltdown that happened in June. In this way, the reader pieces Emily’s story together bit by bit, getting glimpses of her home life and relationship with her parents, her best friend at home, and the horrible experiences she survived while homeless. Throughout, she tries to come to terms with her losses, grieve, and figure out how to survive, not daring to think about the future.
With its teen narrator and unusual circumstances, I was hooked right from the beginning by this compelling story. There is some suspense, both in piecing together the past and seeing how Emily will survive, as well as plenty of emotional depth. The novel is not only about loss and survival but also about healing, family, and friendship and finding or making a family for yourself. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one of those novels that utterly envelops you while you are reading it so that you feel you are living in that world and feeling what its characters feel – another unique and moving novel by Bohjalian.
266 pages, Doubleday