Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
Here’s another title you might consider choosing to stick in your ears: 1. because this, Chris Bohjalian’s latest, is read by his own daughter, Grace Experience Blewer, who he credits as “instrumental in the creation of [his protagonist’s] voice,” who taught him “a lot – I mean a lot – of new expressions”; and 2. at novel’s end, you’ll get to hear both father and child discuss the novel with candor, concern, gratitude, and humor.
Close Your Eyes seems to be a noticeable departure from Bohjalian’s previous titles: it’s one of his shortest (under 300 pages; just over eight aural hours), his younger protagonist here is the first (I’m mostly certain) teenager among the various narrators of his 17 thus-far published books (he has two ‘won’t-see-the-light-of-day’-manuscripts stashed away in an underground archive), and she’s very much a product of her 21st-century, social-media-reliant, cell-phone-stuck generation.
Emily Shepherd is just 16 when her world implodes. Her family of three – she’s the “only child of only children” – moved from a New York City suburb to a Vermont McMansion, where her parents “drank too much, and sometimes fought like fisher cats.” When the nearby nuclear reactor – where both parents work – melts down, her chief engineer father becomes the most hated man in America. With both parents presumed dead, and Emily deemed guilty by family association, she runs.
Her odyssey to eventual safely – the “Prologue” reveals she’s writing out her experiences in a hospital – is absolutely harrowing. She’s vilified by strangers blinded by misdirected shock and fury. She’s abused by other runaways whose survival instinct erases their empathy. She’s taught to torture and abuse her own self by peers desperate to feel something beyond hopelessness. She’s manipulated and molested by pushers and pimps.
In the midst of terror and suffering, Emily survives because of much-needed moments of grace. She cloaks herself in anonymity as Abby Bliss, channeling the name of one of poet Emily Dickinson’s friends. Her will to live, understandably dampened by the horrors all around her, is revived by an inexplicably intense need to care for a boy named Cameron who she finds bruised and battered by the fourth foster family he’s managed to escape. A fellow runaway who once harassed her later provides the much-needed shelter she desperately needs.
Like Bohjalian’s heroines in his historical novels – The Light in the Ruins, The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast – Emily, too, bears witness to man-made horrific events, although her violent tragedy is a contemporary war not between governments, but the human determination to manipulate and control nature. “I’m going to try and tell you only the things that I know for a fact that are true,” she promises from the beginning. The resulting account, fiction it may be, is a disturbingly possible premise: Vermont has a single nuclear power plant, the Vermont Yankee, which – ironically! – is in the process of being decommissioned by the end of 2014 after decades of protests.
Read the novel as a parable, as warning, as testimony. Loyal Bohjalian fans and newbie first-timers will definitely find common ground here. Serendipitously, Emily’s youth just might put Close onto young adult shelves, introducing Bohjalian to a vast new audience of waiting readers.