Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by author Chris Bohjalian is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year; it is an utterly chilling, engrossing, and brilliant novel. By no means a “feel good” novel, like The Rosie Project or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, it is nonetheless a MUST read novel that offers an at times heartbreaking coming of age tale I won’t soon forget.

In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands 16-year old Emily Shepard shares her harrowing tale of homelessness and drug abuse, and the tragic chain of events that led to her living in Burlington, VT in an igloo made of ice and trash bags. Alternating between past and present, Emily splits her tale between B.C. and A.C. (Before Cameron and After Cameron; I’ll get to him shortly) and begins the story of her odyssey by telling us of the nuclear power plant meltdown that killed both her parents. While Bill and Mira Shepard were both employees of the plant, it was Bill as the lead engineer that was quickly used as the scapegoat for the events that lead to thousands, including Emily, having to flee from their schools and jobs, leaving their pets, homes and normal lives behind in a mad dash to safety.

When an incident during the early panic surrounding the meltdown causes Emily to fear for her safety because of her name, the irrational and panic-stricken teen runs away from all connections to her past; taking on a new identify, that of Abby Bliss, a name inspired by her idol Emily Dickinson, and ends up first at a teen homeless shelter and then on her own at Poacher’s apartment, a drug dealer that’s more than willing to lend a helping hand to runaways in exchange for the money or drugs earned stealing or through sex. Six months after the meltdown, Emily is still lost and struggling with grief, pain and guilt, but life takes an unexpected turn when she befriends Cameron, a 9-year old foster care runaway, with whom she forms an unexpected bond, but when fate throws her yet another curveball, Emily decides to stop running and make a new plan no matter the consequences.

I loved this book; it was so poignant and unforgettable. While the aspects surrounding the meltdown itself were engrossing and downright frightening; from the evacuating school buses, to two lane highways becoming five lanes of traffic, to the depictions of “walkers,” people desperately fleeing on foot away from their homes; it was the more human tale, namely the narrative surrounding Emily herself, her sense of hopelessness and loss, and all of the events encompassed in a seemingly endless life-altering 9-months that were the most riveting.

I find it amazing that Bohjalian was able to so perfectly capture the voice of a teenage girl and make her so real. Emily was such a dichotomy of emotions; hopeful and hopeless, fearful and courageous, cynical and trusting, but when it came down to it, you could see she was just a kid – a scared, lonely kid. While honest and reliable as a narrator, Emily’s thoughts are at times scattered and haphazardly organized, jumping back and forth in time, a fact of which the protagonist is fully aware; as a result, as a reader you’re forced to remain fully engaged in the story so as to not get lost, but honestly that isn’t difficult because every page is enthralling.

I have to admit that the fact that I myself live only 10 miles away from a nuclear power plant (Indian Point in Buchanan), definitely played a part in the depths of the book’s impact on me. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing to put myself in Emily's shoes, but I couldn’t help but shiver in real fear thinking ‘what if’ as I read those evacuation scenes. While the book doesn’t make an outright case against nuclear power, it really is more about Emily’s journey with the meltdown serving as the catalyst and backdrop to her story, the descriptions of the mass exodus and refugees caused by the event are eerily real and startling enough to give both proponents and critics of nuclear energy pause.

Lastly, the truth of the novel’s title, revealed near the end of the book, is as touching as the story itself, and the epilogue offers the perfect ending to this equal parts gritty and beautiful novel. Despite Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands somber and at times gut-wrenching moments, its tale is a testament to the power of the human spirit and its young protagonist offers a hopeful message to keep faith and courage alive, and we too can be at our best when the world is at its worst; a poignant and memorable life-affirming tale.