Title: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Author: Chris Bohjalian
No. of Pages: 288
Release Date: 8 July 2014
Bottom Line: Emotionally raw and compelling
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless teen living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with frozen leaves. Half a year earlier, a nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had experienced a cataclysmic meltdown, and both of Emily’s parents were killed. Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault. Was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to flee their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger. So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer’s apartment, and inventing a new identity for herself — an identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. When Emily befriends a young homeless boy named Cameron, she protects him with a ferocity she didn’t know she had. But she still can’t outrun her past, can’t escape her grief, can’t hide forever—and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.”
Thoughts: Given everything Emily experiences once the sirens sound, it is no wonder her life spirals downward as low as it does. Not only must she mourn the loss of her parents and her previous life, she also must deal with the anger and blame targeting her parents for the accident. As she so clearly displays, this is a combination of emotions that no teenage girl is capable of handling well. Her paranoia is justifiable and even admirable given the life she faces on the streets, something driven home by the reactions of others when they discover her true identity. That she succumbs to drug use and other unsavory acts is also completely understandable as she attempts to offset the guilt she feels on behalf of her father. In other words, Emily and the entire story is a psychiatrist’s dream.
Emily’s life on the streets is raw and intense and utterly heart-breaking. Her longing for her life as it was versus the reality of her life as it is now is palpable. Even though her choices are understandable, it does not make the consequences any easier to watch unfold. Her self-loathing is scathing, and the manifestations of her pain and anguish require sincere effort to read.
Just when a reader thinks the story cannot get any more intense or emotional, Emily shares a story about a recent tragedy that becomes a complete game-changer. In one sentence, the entire novel changes in dimension and meaning and not necessarily in a pleasant way. For, Emily’s anecdote is one that reminds readers of the worst things humans can do to one another and who the real victims are. It is one of the most profound moments in a novel this reader has ever experienced, one that changes Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands from good to great.
Mr. Bohjalian’s writing, as always, is wonderful. He captures Emily’s voice perfectly. She speaks with just the right amount of self-righteous indignation for a standard teenager with a growing awareness due to her increasing maturity. His focus on the Vermont setting is not quite as detailed as is his wont, but it is not necessary to the story for it to be anything other than an indistinct blur. For, the story is Emily, her thoughts, her experiences, and her emotions. It is painful, gut-wrenching, emotionally difficult, and brutally honest. It does not get much better than that.