A homeless teenager in a realistic post-apocalypse is the heroine--or perhaps, anti-hero--of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian's latest novel. This is an absorbing story about surviving disaster: the disaster of nuclear meltdown, the disaster of parental abandonment, the disaster of prostitution, the disaster, even, of living through the teenage years. In the end, Bohjalian’s tale is a moving reminder about the innate need for human connectedness.
The Story: Emily Shepard should be attending 11th grade in the peaceful Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She should be living a comfortable life as the only child of two loving, although decidedly imperfect, parents. She should be reading the poetry of her literary idol, Emily Dickinson, and navigating her way through the hazards of her mildly troubled teen years.
Instead, she is living in an igloo made of trash bags filled with frozen leaves.
Emily is utterly alone in the wake of the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. Both of her parents worked at the plant and are presumed dead. Emily flees from her school when she hears that her father, who drinks too much, may have been responsible for the meltdown. She enters the scary realm of homeless teens—shelters, drug abusers, pimps, and teen prostitutes. She forms an unlikely alliance with a young homeless boy named Cameron. Emily experiences disaster upon disaster and makes, at times, terrible decisions, and yet she discovers an inner resilience as she struggles to keep herself and Cameron safe from harm.
What I Thought: I always look forward to a new novel from Chris Bohjalian. He’s a wonderful storyteller, for starters, and I appreciate that he writes both contemporary and historical fiction and explores new directions in his work. Bohjalian has a gift for connecting his readers to the thoughts and emotions of his characters. In my reviews, I often critique authors for failing to make me feel an emotional connection to the main character . . . that never happens in a Bohjalian novel. I always feel deeply, utterly enmeshed in the inner life of Bohjalian’s central characters, and this novel is certainly no exception.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is not going to knock Skeletons at the Feast from its honored place as my favorite Bohjalian novel. I’d offer a few minor criticisms of his latest book; at times, the structure was a bit confusing and I momentarily lost my place in the story’s timeline (although this structure, no doubt, was intentional, as it seems to mimic how a teen girl might tell her story). I wanted a bit more, in the end, from the relationship between Emily and Cameron.
But this novel is a powerful, thought-provoking, and worthwhile read. After all the fantastical dystopian fiction of the past few years, Bohjalian offers a welcome, clear-eyed vision of what a real "post-apocalyptic" world might be like in contemporary America. At the same time, he immerses readers into Emily's story completely. Emily is a flawed, heart-breaking, and absolutely authentic character, and Bohjalian gets her voice exactly right. Bohjalian writes movingly of the world of homeless teens and what Emily must do to keep herself warm, fed, and relatively safe while living on the streets.
In the end, Bohjalian seems to tell us, the worst disaster we can experience is being alone and losing human connectedness. We all need someone to hold our hand and tell us when to close our eyes . . . And if we keep hold of those we love, ultimately, we can survive even the worst disasters that life will throw at us.
I would rate Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands a 4 out of 5 stars. I recommend it to those who like literary fiction. Although it is not a Young Adult novel, I think many teenagers would respond to the novel and find it a compelling read.