By: Shannon Strack
“I’m nobody, who are you?” – Emily Dickinson
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, is a story about loss, love and faith in the wake of a cataclysmic disaster. Published this summer, it’s been selected as The Washington Post’s best book of the year, and placed on the NY Times Best Seller list.
For Emily Shepard, the sunny June day had started off like any other. Little did she know her city was about to be rocked by a nuclear power plant meltdown that would kill both of her parents and leave her homeless. Adding insult to injury, her father, who was in charge of the plant, becomes the scapegoat for the unfortunate incident due to his history of drinking. While everyone flees the city and orphaned children are taken to shelters, Emily, who has become a pariah for carrying the name Shepard, sets off on her own. Knowing that she cannot tell people her real identity she creates one for herself under the name Abbey Bliss, the name of Emily Dickinson’s dearest friend. Emily had tried living at a shelter until she met Andrea, another homeless teen who has been kicked out of the shelter for her continued drug use. They end up living on the a retired Iraq War veteran that provides teenage runaways drugs and roof over their heads in order to prostitute them out to long-haul truckers. Flash forward to a year later and we find Emily living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags with a nine-year-old runaway named Cameron, whom she feels the need to nurture and protect. However, when Cameron gets sick and is hospitalized, Emily feels like she’s failed, and knows there’s only one thing she can do: brave the radiation and make her way home.
One of the aspects of this book that I really appreciated was the authenticity of Emily’s narration. Her short, almost terse, statements at times ring true of a grumpy teenager, especially when it comes to her parent’s drinking: “So why did I break the wineglass? Because I was frustrated and angry that my parents were drunk. Again.” Similarly, the book’s layout feels a little convoluted at first with Emily jumping around to different time frames in her narration, before the meltdown and after the meltdown. Yet, this fragmentary approach parallels the, at times, tumultuous mind of a teenager. Another aspect of the novel that exhibits Bohjalian’s talent for writing from this teenage girl’s point of view is her idolization of Emily Dickinson. Learning every fact she can and committing Dickinson’s poetry to memory: it is not unlike the love most teenage girls exhibit for their favorite pop star. Emily periodically breaks her narration with some little tidbit about Emily Dickinson, as if trying, for just a small amount of time, to forget the horror of her current situation.
While the story is about Emily and told by Emily, the novel seemed to lack in the drama factor. Our narrator is at school when the meltdown occurs so all the reader gets is her experience with the evacuation process. I feel that adding more of the tragedy to her situation would help the reader find more compassion for her and, therefore, compel them to be more invested in the character herself.
While I would have liked a little more meat to the disaster aspect of the novel, it is an enjoyable rainy day read. The storyline is fresh and the narrator has a strong, oftentimes humorous, voice. I would recommend this book for adults and young adults alike.
Chris Bohjalian graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Amherst College. He is the author of 17 novels, some of them on the New York Times Best Sellers list. His novel Midwives was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. You can visit Bohjalian at his site.