Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

close-your-eyes-hold-hands“A heartbreaking, wildly inventive, and moving novel narrated by a teenage runaway, from the bestselling author of Midwives and The Sandcastle Girls.
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.
A story of loss, adventure, and the search for friendship in the wake of catastrophe, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one of Chris Bohjalian’s finest novels to date—breathtaking, wise, and utterly transporting.” – Publisher Summary

I love Chris Bohjalian. I’ve read most of his novels, and most of those have blown me away. So it is no surprise that Bohjalian’s first YA novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is yet another page-turning example of his talent. Sixteen-year-old Emily Shepard is living a good life in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, until the day that the nuclear power plant that her father controls Melts. Down. Yes, y’all. We’re talking nuclear meltdown here.

Both of Emily’s parents are killed in the tragedy, and both are being blamed for it as well. Ashamed and afraid, Emily runs from helping hands and finds herself homeless in Burlington, Vermont, running with a parade of homeless or near-homeless cohorts as she tries to make sense of her new world. When she comes across a nine-year-old fellow runaway named Cameron, she takes him under her wing and the two become a team until disaster tears them apart and Emily departs back to familiar and tragic territory.

There is such a sense of loss in this novel; you feel it in your stomach throughout the entire book. You want to feel hope for Emily, but she has no hope for herself, and she has no plans to help herself, really, so it’s hard to feel optimistic that she’s going to make it to the other side. Bohjalian’s writing style in this novel is unusual – Emily goes back and forth and in-between as she weaves her tale for us. It didn’t really work for me; I found it to be much too erratic and disjointed.

My favorite part of the novel by far is when Emily is living alone within the Exclusion Zone – I can see her wandering the empty streets, roaming through her neighbors’ homes, curling up in her own bed once again. Most of us know the relief of returning home after being away for a period of time, and I can just feel the sweet comfort flowing through her body as she melts once again into her sheets.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is not a feel-good read, so if you’re looking for a pick-me-up, don’t look in this direction. If you are looking for a deeply moving and birds-eye view of tragedy, homelessness, innocent love, and redemption, this is where you want to be. Don’t pass this one up, folks.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian – on sale July 8, 2014.                 Buy it, read it, love it.

4 stars

Source: Doubleday Books {via NetGalley}

 

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